Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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.

TL;DR

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.

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)

Cover by Kieryn Taylor

Untitled #1 / Standalone

Scifi, Romance

Angry Robot; November 10, 2020

297 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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.

TL;DR

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

Book Loot – November Edition

A very light haul this month, but I need it to catch up on everything I fell behind on in the early fall. Chance that that happens? I’m going with… low, but possible. If nothing else, I shouldn’t fall further behind. Life continues to be just… exhausting this year, y’know? We’re almost done with 2020 (though my brain assures me that reaching an arbitrary “end” to the year won’t do any good or change anything—my mind is always optimistic and super helpful)—just a couple more months to go!

ARCs

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (11/10)

Hal Cullen is an ex-supersoldier, grown in a vat and guaranteed little in the way of a life outside of war. Burned out and not long for life, Hal reluctantly takes a job salvaging ships to pass the time before his inevitable crash. But as he begins to grow close to a new crewmember, Hal starts to imagine a life outside of his vat-given one. And that’s when an alien presence takes over their ship and SHTF. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#TheRushsEdge, #AngryRobot) for the ARC!

Infernal – by Mark de Jager (Re-release • 11/26)

Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with no memory of anything before but for the fact that he is not human. He does possess an incredible strength and the overwhelming will to survive. As he sets out across the war-torn land, Stratus will discover bits and pieces of his life before, all culminating in the burning desire for vengeance upon those that robbed him of his past. Many thanks to Rebellion for this reissue! It looks really good!

Purchases

Forest of Souls – by Lori M. Lee

My monthly audiobook credit went to the newest Lori M. Lee book that I’ve been planning on reading for half the year. I still have a bit of listening burnout, but we’ll see how it goes. With the power to cheat death, an army of living trees, and promised doses of action, heartache and intrigue, hopefully it’ll prove more than entertaining!

What are everyone’s plans for November? Anybody doing Nanowrimo, maybe shopping their memoirs, or bedding down for the remainder of the year (I know Tammy’s husband has something planned!)? I’ll admit, I’m tempted on that final one! And not only since it’s supposed to be -10˚F this week (that’s -23˚C just in case you were curious), and we’re supposed to get a foot of snow.

Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher (Review)

Because of the dust, the stubble, or the lighting, it always (at first) looked to me like Harry was rocking shades. And when I realized over and over again he wasn’t, it disappointed me.

Dresden Files #17

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 29, 2020

432 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ace and Netgalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

This breaks the mold of typical Dresden Files entries, by featuring little to no mystery in needs of solving and no investigation using magic or, well, anything whatsoever. Moreover, Butcher used it a bit like Changes—a time to thank the previous cast for their service, dedication before ushering them into the void. Not that everyone dies in Battle Ground, but… well, in battle, you ought to expect SOMEONE to die. Butcher just expands this “someone” to be “anyone”.

I’ll skip over much of the recap seeing as how Peace Talks leads right into Battle Ground, and if you haven’t read the latest one, the blurb for this is going to look strange if not completely ridiculous. Sufficient to say: there’s a war on, and Chicago is the battleground.

Once again Harry squares off against powerful supernatural opponents, only this time they’re bigger and stronger than anything he’s ever fought—even anything he can imagine. All his allies are along for the ride, and Dresden’s even got a few new tricks up his sleeve, but it still may not be enough. And with all his loved ones lives—not to mention the lives of everyone in Chicago—in the balance, the stakes are higher than ever.

And so it begins. For how does one even fight a Titan?

When I first read the blurb for Battle Ground (back before I read Peace Talks), I rolled my eyes. It didn’t seem wise. It didn’t seem likely. It seemed ridiculous. But going into it having read Peace Talks—yeah, okay. But how does one take a detective, urban fantasy series heavy on planning, mystery, and the unknown and adapt it into an entire sequence of back-to-back fight-scenes? The answer is… one writes all fight scenes and goes from there.

If you were expecting another Dresden mystery—full of summoning, magic, patience and dramatic tension—this ain’t it. There were still a couple parts that wowed me, a few that captivated me, and enough of the same-old, same-old to keep me invested in the story—but mostly I was a bit disappointed. I went in feeling that this was going to be an EPIC BATTLE FOR THE FATE OF MANKIND AND BEYOND! And it was… for a time. The problem was that all battles have lulls, and those that write war fiction or high fantasy know to include a bit of change, difference, twists, turns to keep everything interesting. And while I’m sure Butcher tried to do this. It didn’t work (for me). It was an good read, fairly good even, yet it doesn’t live up to the hype. About halfway through I was sick of the fight-fight-fight format, but even though there’s plenty going on, eventually every battle of the war starts to feel indistinguishable from the last. Even the boss fight (in many ways ESPECIALLY the boss fight) itself was more of the same. I was expecting an epic build to a fight like Goku v. Frieza; something that went on FOREVER and included more twists and turns than seemed worthwhile. But, like Goku-Frieza, it inevitably dragged on too long, eventually overshadowing the epic-ness of the conclusion.

Fortunately, the book doesn’t end here. The conclusion actually goes on for a while and includes some wind-down that helps assuage the disappointment, and giving the reader more time to think about what has happened over the course of these two books. This brings back a bit of the mystery, a bit of the tension that felt absent from the rest of the text. It felt like a breath of fresh air; a good note to end on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix the mistakes made along the way. And it doesn’t make up for them, either. It just makes everything a bit easier to swallow.

TL;DR

Battle Ground is a swipe of the slate for the Dresden Files. Out with the old, in with the new, if you will. Like Changes, it marks a turning point in the series—one marked by an epic fight scene that just won’t end. And like that epic fight scene, it carries on even after you’ve kinda gotten sick of it and are starting to wonder what else is on. The sameness culminates in a final battle, one that felt so much like the rest of the book before it that it almost felt like a middle-finger to those fans who’ve stuck around to this point. While the conclusion lasts for maybe fifty pages more and in part helps assuage this feeling, one thing is certain moving forward. The Dresden Files will never be the same.

The Subjugate – by Amanda Bridgeman (Review)

Salvi Brentt #1

Detective, Mystery, Cyberpunk

Angry Robot; November 6, 2018

398 pages (PB)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot) for the book! All opinions are my own.

A hardboiled detective novel with elements of cyberpunk, the Subjugate is an interesting tale of purity married with violence, crossed through with the themes of faith, deceit and redemption. It’s quite a good mystery; the crux of which hinges on the detectives’ own ability to separate the past from the present, especially when it comes to rehabilitated criminals and their supposed “redemption”.

A murder rocks the deeply religious town of Bountiful, one of their brightest young souls, Sharon Gleamer, raped and beaten before being killed and carved up. The community is beside themselves, but disbelieving that any of their number could commit such an atrocity. Instead, they point the finger at the nearby Solme Complex, a revolutionary prison where the inmates are conditioned with injections and experimental neural technology to remove their violent tendencies. And while the complex has seen nothing but success, this murder casts doubt on them. For could the town of Bountiful harbor dark secrets of its own, or are the subjugates at the Solme Complex not as reformed as they would have the world believe?

Enter Salvi Brentt, Bay Area detective. When she and her new partner, Mitch Grenville, are assigned the murder, their focus quickly lands on the subjugates at the Solme Complex. While the Complex vaunts its tech as the reason the inmates have been reformed, the detectives are not so sure. Years prior in 2040, an event known only as “the Crash” destabilized the world’s economy and nearly sent humans to war not amongst themselves, but with their very minds. Neural enhancements—technology implanted into people’s minds—were at the very heart of the trouble, but the text is very vague about the specifics. Ever since, humanity has taken a step away from neural tech—all except those at the Solme Complex. Their Halos (silver discs worn about the head) are used to slowly transform the Subjugates into Serenes. As the obvious first step, the detectives investigate the Complex, but here their investigation falters.

For not only do the inmates at the Complex seem reformed, they seem like different men entirely than those they were before. Violent and sexual offenders all, now they appear timid, demure, and serene. But appearances can be deceiving, and the past is often difficult to overcome—something Salvi knows better than most. Even as Mitch scours the Complex, Salvi herself begins to focus on the townsfolk themselves. For it wouldn’t be the first time that the heart of religion had become blackened with sin.

But as the murders escalate, the detective remain divided, quickly exposing their deepest secrets and blurring the lines between friend and foe, between purity and sin. The question remains: who committed these atrocities? And will Salvi be able to stop them while the body count is still low, or will the detectives become the next victims?

I said that I’d class this as detective fiction with cyberpunk elements, instead of a cyberpunk detective novel. The main reason for this is the world-building. Or the lack thereof. It’s not that there isn’t any—but other than the occasional visit from the police AI Riverton, or the infrequent use of other advanced tech (like the detective’s holo badges), there isn’t much mentioned. As I said before, references to the Crash are vague at best, mentioning something about neural augmentations but providing little detail. In fact, the Solme Complex seems to boast the bulk of the enhancements: and it’s really only the Halos. I would’ve liked to have seen more about the Crash, or more about the advanced technology of the world—but it just never comes up.

The mystery itself is more enjoyable. Very complex and unique. Until maybe the last quarter I had no idea who done it, and even then my guess was tentative at best. Though I ended up being right, it felt more a vindication than a disappointment when the killer(s) were revealed.

The themes of the Subjugate were more mixed. And there was no shortage of them. Though I enjoyed the battle between history and redemption, the anti-religious sentiment within got tiresome quickly. Additionally, there were more than a few absolutely cliché detective…—uh, blanking on the term—tropes? Motifs? Whatevers later on, none of which I can talk about without spoilers.

TL;DR

With a grisly murder and an unknown killer on the loose, the Subjugate starts off with a bang and rarely slows down afterwards. Right up to the end I was divided on who the killer(s) were, and absolutely enjoyed my journey there. All in all I’d recommend The Subjugate, but not without a few small caveats. One is that while the story includes cyberpunk and transhumanist elements, it is not inherently either. It’s a detective mystery-thriller first, science fiction second (not that that’s a deal-breaker, it’s just important to note). The second is that while the resolution is enjoyable, the wrap-up is entirely cliché. I was in equal parts thrilled and disgusted by the ending, but that’s just me. I look forward to how the second entry, the Sensation, handles the world, the detectives, and the story the author has built thus far.

Book Loot – October Edition

I was a little late on the draw this month, but we got the October edition out as the month starts, so I’m counting that as a win. All been a bit sideways lately, which I’ll brief later, but right now let’s get into it!

ARCs

The Midnight Circus – by Jane Yolen (10/01)

Welcome to the Midnight Circus: the collected works of Jane Yolen combining the wicked, haunting, solemn and unbelievable all into one volume in which the Circus lurks in every plot or poem. Or so I’ve been told. Thanks to Tachyon and NetGalley for the eARC!

Once and Future Witches – by Alix E. Harrow (10/13)

As of 1893, witches are no more. And the modern woman finds nothing more scandalous to pursue than suffrage. When two sisters join the movement in New Salem, they bring to it old ideas and even older magics. But when hunted by forces that will not suffer a witch to live, they must delve into blacker arts still. And though 1893 knows no witches—it soon will. Many thanks to Redhook and Orbit for the eARC!

Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (10/20)

For generations, the Empire has spread across the world. Reliant on automata animated by powerful magical sigils and paints, it is a nigh unstoppable force. But when one of the magic painters sets out to discover the source of the Phoenix Extravagant, what they uncover will prove beyond their wildest dreams. Thanks to Solaris for the ARC!

The Tower of Fools – by Andrjez Sapkowski (Re-release • 10/27)

Reinmar must flee after being caught in bed with a knight’s wife. Pursued not only by the knight and his brother but also the Inquisition, Reinmar takes refuge in the Tower of Fools, an asylum for the insane. Many thanks to Gollancz and NetGalley for the eARC!

The Subjugate & The Sensation – by Amanda Bridgeman (10/13)

Welcome to the world of Salvi Brentt, a homicide detective that walks the beat between augmented killers and religious fanatics. A cyberpunk murder-mystery, I was sold on this as a concept right after I heard about it and can’t wait to dig in. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC of the Sensation, as well as the inclusion of the Subjugate, the first in Brentt’s investigations.

Purchases

The Jade City – by Fonda Lee

The island of Kekon is the world’s only source of magical jade, able to imbue its few recipients with superhuman abilities. The Kaul Family makes up half of the two crime syndicates that lay claim to the isle, but when their rivals instigate a brutal clan war, the streets that were paved with green may instead turn red with blood.

The Black Company – by Glen Cook

The Black Company take their pay from the Lady, careful not to ask too many questions. But when prophecy arises, nothing will keep the mercs from pursuing it. Not the Lady, and not even their own doubts.

Life

I’ve fallen behind lately as work is in full swing and with the fall harvests and hunting season, I’m just not reading as much lately. Don’t have much free time for it. So I dunno how many of these ARCs I’ll get through this month, especially since I have to make up a few from September and the months prior. At the moment though, I still have November off, so maybe I’ll have time to catch up. Yeah… maaaybe.

So what’s been going on with y’all lately? Have you seen or read any of these, or do you want to? Be sure and let me know!

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

How long does it take for a lie to unravel? How long for an empire to fall? While it might be set in motion by a single rock falling, it might take ten thousand years for all the stones to fall.

Manet is having a rather bad day.

Amanuensis to the God-King, she had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and evolving her mind into something past the point of humanity. Something approaching perfection. She remembers everything that has happened to her since arriving ashore the White Isle. She can sing, play the harp—perfectly—she can keep numbers and translate; she can serve her God—perfectly.

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

When a locket with a certain photo appears on her doorstep, it reveals a secret from her childhood that Manet hadn’t remembered. A secret that she just can’t forget. A secret that rips a gargantuan hole in the story of the God-King’s ascension, a story that she has taken as gospel her entire life. But when Manet goes down the rabbit-hole to follow this thread, she soon learns that doing so is a step she can never untake. But Manet will learn the truth, no matter the cost to her life—and that of the world itself.

This one was a bit of a slow build, to be honest. I actually thought of abandoning it—twice—prior to reaching the quarter mark. Glad I continued!

I could never really figure out what Age this story took place in. Some parts seemed to indicate an alchemical, maybe industrializing fantasy world, others a more science fiction, advanced dystopia. I’m pretty sure it was intended this way, however, as you’ll find out.

The story is told entirely through the viewpoints of others, with no input from Manet herself. This took some getting used to. We don’t hear (or see) what Manet has to say, what she thinks, what she knows, her wants, her desires, her dreams—not exactly, at least. At first this drove me crazy (yes, to the point where I considered stopping), but around the quarter mark something changed. And I began to read between the lines. I started to read Manet’s questions and responses in precisely how the narrator (whomever it happened to be at the time) responded. And then Manet took on a life of her own. A life, directly affected by my depiction of her.

Even though I couldn’t see her exact words, I got the gist of them—and then my imagination took hold. See, in my story she was both sarcastic and passionate. She used sarcasm to cope with her life unraveling but was passionate about discovering the truth. Once I got a feel for Manet—once my imagination began to fill in the gaps the author had left—the story took off. And I didn’t even think of abandoning it again.

While it’s possible that this was a terrible way to write a story, I’m chalking this up as an innovative idea. Now, I’m not sure it would’ve made an effective novel (being a bit vague and out there), but for a day’s read, I’d say it worked. It could certainly come across as a lazy way to tell a story, or a hard way that didn’t work; but it worked for me. And my version of Manet wouldn’t’ve been the same as everyone else’s. The main plot is written—but how you arrive there changes depending on how your opinion of who exactly Manet is. Does that make any sense?

TL;DR

Though it’s a bit of a slow build and the writing style takes some getting used to, the Seventh Perfection was one of my favorite novellas of the year thus far. With a lead that never speaks—but is only spoken to, told entirely through the words of the people she converses with—it is up to the reader to read between the lines, using hints and clues, along with their own bias and preference, to determine Manet’s very words. In my version she was passionate but sarcastic (which might tell you something about me), but in someone else’s version she might be cold and dismissive, or warm but skeptical. While the Seventh Perfection is very much something of Daniel Polansky’s creation, and he tells a complete tale—I felt something of myself in the story at the end, and I could not help but wondering where the story went from there.

Hopefully this (more or less) makes sense. If not, I guess you’ll have to read it to find out more! Or, if you’d prefer, head over to Re-Enchantment of the World to find a much more positive review, and take it from there.

Bystander 27 – by Rik Hoskin (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Superheroes

Angry Robot; August 11, 2020

356 pages (PB)

2.9 / 5 ✪

Goodreads

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.

I’d class this as Punisher crossed with the Reckoners, but I’m not much of a comics guy so there could well be a closer match. There’s a heavy superhero/comic influence, mixed with a science-fiction/alternate world setting, and a bit of a mystery thrown in. It’s a curious combination—one that I feel could’ve been an amazing read when done right. While Bystander 27 did quite a few things right, it was far from perfect. Let’s get into it.

Ex-SEAL Jon Hayes has never felt so small.

With the Navy he’d served multiple tours all around the globe, battling terrorists in the Middle East and chasing cartels in South America. He returned to the States and married his dream girl, Melanie, before moving to New York to start their life together. But for a man who’d toured all around the globe New York might as well be a different world.

For New York is where the ‘Costumes’ hang out. Superpowered heroes and baddies overrun the place, battling it out in the streets on a daily basis. For the residents, it’s just a fact of life; pollution is annoying, traffic always terrible, and the costumes are out to play. Like the rest, Hayes does his best to ignore it, but is generally wowed along with the rest when the heroes take center stage.

Until Melanie is caught in the crossfire. She—along with their unborn child—is killed in a clash between Captain Light and the Jade Shade.

As Hayes struggles to come to terms with the loss, he uncovers a mystery at the center of the Costumes conspiracy. Deeper and deeper he digs, until the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. But as Hayes pieces the mystery together, he must decide whether he’s after just the truth of the matter, or vengeance for his fallen family.

So… I’m really torn on this one. Bystander 27 does a lot of things right; it combines a compelling mystery with an action-packed thriller, a heavy does of science fiction, and a tangible sense of urgency—all within the head of a man overcome by grief, his life slowly descending into madness as his chase takes him down the rabbit hole. While it’s a fairly slow build, I never had trouble reading it. The mystery—it’s a good one—kept me interested until the very end, where everything kinda goes to hell. And while I absolutely hated the conclusion, I very much liked the epilogue tacked on the end. The thing is, Jon Hayes is a pretty good protagonist. He’s a bit ordinary, bland, and forgettable in the beginning, but that makes his character development all the more impressive. He literally goes from just another face in the crowd to an unforgettable piece of the puzzle. You know the puzzles that have one piece shaped like an apple? That’s Hayes. He’s an apple.

No matter how many things it does right, Bystander 27 is constantly in its own way. The fascinating mystery at the forefront is countered by a slow build and just strange language. Jon Hayes—who’s in his early 30’s—talks like a man from the mid-twentieth century. “Son of a gun”, flakes with hypno-discs and popguns”, and “punk kids on their way to band camp” highlight some of my favorites. It’s not used to replace anything explicit—the author still uses plenty of that—it’s just like something out of the fifties. Or a comic. Or a comic from the fifties. The language is… just strange.

The author is also constantly reminding us that Hayes was a SEAL. I mean, CONSTANTLY. I can understand the references to it in the beginning and at certain times that relate to backstory, but we’re reminded of Hayes’ SEAL training at least once a chapter through the first hundred pages. After that it drops off a bit only to pick up again, so that we’re still being told about his SEAL training past page 300.

The book’s conclusion—which I won’t talk much about—is unoriginal at best, and clichéd at the worst. That said, I liked the epilogue. Way more than the conclusion to the story, in fact.

The last thing I want to harp on is 9/11. It’s mentioned as the reason Hayes joined the Navy. In a world where superheroes have roamed downtown New York, Manhattan in particular, since the mid-Sixties, how exactly is 9/11 still a thing? Worse, it establishes the time of the story. I might’ve accepted the language being as it is in a story set before the seventies. But as a post-9/11 thing? Nope.

TL;DR

Something like a cross between the Punisher and Reckoners, or the novelization of a superhero comic book, Bystander 27 does a lot of things right. Possessive of a intricate mystery and very real character development, I never thought about giving up on it. Unfortunately, with a slow pace, dated if not odd language, and a clichéd ending—the book constantly made me question my decision not to bin it. At the end of the day Bystander 27 just can’t get out of its own way. And while it legitimately contains a good, even provocative story, in the end it just doesn’t deliver.

The Awkward Black Man – by Walter Mosley (Review)

Omnibus

Short Stories, Fiction, Scifi

Grove Press; September 15, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

3.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I know it’s not usually my cup of tea, but I read general fiction on occasion. But there’s a reason I mostly stay for science fiction and fantasy. Parts of my younger life were an awkward mess, or ruined by bullies, or anxiety, or MORE anxiety, or whatnot. So while I enjoyed this collection, it reminded me too much of a time where I always sought an escape.

The Awkward Black Man collects the stories of Walter Mosley, an author who’s been telling stories of inner city African American men since before I was born. While I’ve read some of his science fiction, it’s his mysteries that have always drawn my attention. My dad introduced me to Mosley’s books about a decade ago, when he started me on the Easy Rawlins series. While i was never the fan that my father was, I enjoyed some few of Mosley’s books because of the culture that they referenced were so dissimilar to my own.

Most of the narrators are black men (unsurprisingly), and most of them are also awkward. You can glean as much from the title. While Walter Mosley doesn’t shy away from talking about the disparity of racism, neither does he neglect that the bigotry cuts both ways. But while the Awkward Black Man isn’t about race, but it’s also not not about race. Prejudice colors the undercurrents of many of the tales. While sometimes it’s overt, other times it’s casual. It was always depressing.

Mostly these are just stories about life. Not how to live, nor how not to live. Mostly just how to be human. The characters within are entirely human (save the science fiction), which is probably the best thing I can say about the book itself. It paints a realistic picture of life—one that could be anyone’s life, and might as well be.

Several of these stories were just depressing, though. Some even seemed pointless. Rufus and Frank both appeared multiple times, enough that I learned that I didn’t want their lives, even though they proved to be equal parts entertaining, exciting, depressing and super, super awkward. Another thing to note is that I’ve never been a fan of the author’s science fiction—mostly it seems too far out there, too unrealistic, even silly—and the few scifi reads within didn’t disprove this.

My favorite stories were: Almost Alyce, where a man’s life spirals out from under him, but he does his best to claw it back, while staying true to himself. Between Storms, when a disaster strikes, a man’s life takes an unexpected turn, but when it is pulled from the ashes, he must decide whether or not to own up to the fear that led him to the brink. Local Hero, about a boy who always idolized his cousin, and what happened when that idol was laid low. Reply to a Dead Man, which reminded me of several different movies, and yet fit none of them precisely.

TL;DR

The Awkward Black Man paints a realistic picture of life—be it through the eyes of an old, black man, dying in his bed; a young, white woman who is shallow but not awful; a young, black man that has the life he’s always wanted, even if it isn’t his own; and many more. There exists racism within, yes, but it’s a double-edged sword, one that proves horrid no matter which end you’re on. Walter Mosley has never shied away from the awkwardness of race—and why would he start now? But while some of these stories center around racism, few of them are defined by it. Some are depressing for the racism within. A lot are just depressing. Others are ridiculous. Some are even pointless. But most are at least humanizing. At the end of the day, these are stories about people being people. A decent read—even if several of them are really depressing.

Book Loot – September Edition

Not a huge haul this month, but maybe it’ll give me an opportunity to catch up on some ARCs I’ve missed, maybe read some more of the Yarnsworld books or some stuff off my 2020 TBR. Or maybe there’ll be a late addition or two from my outstanding requests (I can hope—and there even was one last month). Oh, that and Fable, by Adrienne Young, (which comes out September 1th) which I’ve been looking forward to but got rejected every time I tried to beg for a copy. No matter.

ARCs

The Awkward Black Man – by Walter Mosley (US • 9/15) (UK • 10/1)

A collection of stories from amazing author Walter Mosley. I’m cautiously optimistic, as I’ve enjoyed his mystery fiction, but hated his science fiction. This is one author my Dad introduced me to, so even if I don’t like the stories, maybe he will. The good thing about an omnibus collection is that even if you don’t like one, maybe you’ll like another. Thanks to Grove Press for the eARC!

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (9/22)

An amanuensis (essentially a secretary-slave) of the God-King sets out to unravel one riddle central to the core of his reign. If she somehow completes her work, all of his rule might fall. But as she has achieved all Seven Perfections in order to become the God-King’s servant, it begs the question—can anyone really stop her? Much thanks to Tor for the copy! (Hopefully this means they’re warming up to me.)

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (9/30)

The Pilgrim and Seeker return in this sequel to A Pilgrimage of Swords, where the Pilgrim now seeks to claim a mythical blade for… some reason. I found the first entry unexpectedly entertaining, so my hopes are a bit higher for this second one. Many thanks to Subterranean Press for the ebook!

Bystander 27 – by Rik Hoskin

Some kind of vigilante meets Punisher is what sold me. When ex-Seal Jon Hayes’ wife is killed in a clash between two costumed super-“heroes” (well, one hero and one villain), he must step out of the shadows to get the vengeance he craves.

My first physical ARC! The first thing I did when I got it was text my family and friends—none of which responded with any kind of joy or excitement whatsoever. But I was still excited. Even though it’s already come out; I missed the period where I should’ve read it on NetGalley, so am stoked to get a second chance at it! Big thanks to Angry Robot for the copy!

Purchases

Havenfall – by Sarah Holland

I actually used my audio credit this month, on a YA I’ve been meaning to read. For Maddie, summers at the Inn at Havenfall are her only escape from the nightmare that is her regular life. Located at the crossroads of worlds, the Inn is a refuge for those that would seek to protect the world, and even those who seek to destroy it. But when the truce of the Inn is broken, Maddie must rush to restore the peace before war breaks out. And she must do it all while somehow convincing her uncle to keep her on after the summer. That is—if there’s an Inn to return to. Actually not bad so far, the YA romance isn’t very cringe-worthy even.

To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl – by Benedict Patrick

The final delivery from his Kickstarter back in June, Taniwha Girl is essentially the sequel to Benedict Patrick’s Where the Waters Turn Black. While I haven’t gotten to it yet, as previously mentioned, I hope this is the month I get to do a deep dive into Yarnsworld. While his debut was a bit of a mixed bag for me, I hope that this is one of those worlds that gets better with time and experience.

Life

So, work is starting back up here soon, which is nice. Though there’re a lot of new COVID rules which are just going to be a pain. Well, enforcing them is at least. But I know that it’s important, and that all the rules have been explained to the parents already, so that most of the hoaxers have been weeded out already (and yeah, there were a fair amount, actually). Thing is, I found that all my winter programs have been canceled, along with my part-timer, so I need to find something else after October. Which sucks, but oh well.

I also have some medical appointments and procedures (nothing too serious, mind) in early September, so I may just be MIA for a week or so around that time. Or I might just miss a week do to incurable lethargy, who knows?