Curfew – by Jayne Cowie (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Thriller, Dystopian

Berkley Publishing; March 22, 2022

320 pages (ebook)

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5.5 / 10 ✪

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

Curfew takes place in a near-future Britain where women dominate the workforce, police, wealthy, important, and government. Where the gender pay gap is a thing of the past. Where motherhood opens doors rather than closing them. Where women are no longer afraid to walk the streets alone after dark, dress how they like, or have a few too many drinks while out with their friends.

A world where—from 7pm to 7am—all men are tagged and kept under a strict curfew.

But while the Curfew has fixed some problems, it has just exacerbated others.

Sarah is a single mother whose life started anew when her husband Greg was sent to prison for breaking curfew. After three-months inside, Sarah isn’t expecting a warm reunion—and doesn’t want one. If it were up to her, neither she nor her daughter would ever see Greg again. Though her daughter Cass doesn’t see it that way. She misses her father terribly—and blames her mother for his arrest. And she hates living in a world that restricts her best friend, Billy, simply because he’s a boy.

Helen works as a teacher at a local school. Secretly desperate for a baby, she’s applied for a Co-hab certificate for her and her boyfriend, Tom, and is terrified they won’t get it. All her friends hate Tom, but to Helen, he’s the most perfect man in the world.

But nothing is ever perfect, and perfection never lasts. The town is shocked when a woman is found violently murdered in the middle of town. Evidence suggests that she died late at night—long after Curfew came into effect. And yet, is Curfew as foolproof a system as they all think, or has a man somehow managed to trick the system and kill one of their own, again?


Women kill in self-defense, or because they have psychiatric problems. Men kill because they can.


Curfew was an interesting read for a number of reasons, but there were a fair amount of issues I had with it as well. I’m a little worried that my review will come off as a bit misogynistic, or dismissive of domestic violence, or how some men treat some women. So let me just say up front that domestic violence and crimes committed by men against women are horrible. OBVIOUSLY horrible. What I objected to was the author’s view of how certain laws would completely change the world. Take out the… shall we say “most dangerous predator” in any system, and a new one is going to rise to fill the gap.

First off (and I know how this is going to sound), I found it a bit misandristic (that’s the opposite of misogynistic, FYI). I mean, women being full equal members of society sounds amazing, but then, equality isn’t really equality at all. Now men are treated as second-class citizens. The pay gap swings the other way. Little boys are commonly aborted before birth while girls are seen as an incredible blessing. I would’ve liked to see more on this side of things, but it really wasn’t addressed. A male perspective would’ve helped us see the story from another angle, and perhaps opened up a more interesting debate on the subject. Furthermore, non-binary genders weren’t addressed at all. By itself though, the premise is definitely intriguing: a society that favors the lives of women over men—in opposition to so many of the historical patriarchies and patrilineal kinship systems favored by cultures around the world. Though it’s interesting to see what might’ve happened if a historically patriarchy flipped to a matriarchy, I would’ve liked to see a bit more done on the history of it. As it was there was mention of one particular murder, a few vague references that aren’t well explored—and nothing else. I realize that some crime—particularly violence against women would be down during the 12 hours that men are under curfew—would be down, but it certainly wouldn’t eliminate most crime. Likewise, I think the idea that murder was “a thing of the past” was a bit ridiculous. Because of course, not only men kill people.

The story itself goes along pretty quick. While I got more and more disillusioned by the male characters—well, by most of the characters—the farther we got into it, Curfew was never a very difficult story to read. It flows quite well, and quite quickly. I think that I finished it in a couple of days. But it wasn’t so much the whodunnit that kept me reading, exactly—more on that later.

Throughout the story, we are confronted by several asshole male characters, as well as a few grey-area ones. The further and further we move into the story itself, the less room for interpretation there is. The male characters are one-sided, have no depth, no development, and are either detestable and forgettable. The female characters honestly aren’t that much better—with only a couple showing any sort of depth or growth. The ending is more than a bit bleak, to be honest. The story itself boils down to the conclusion that most men are just evil—an illation that the author doubles-down on come the her post-note, to the point that I wasn’t actually sure whether she believed it or not. Really. It just… it sure sounded like she did. Even after glancing at the author links above, I still couldn’t tell whether or not she ACTUALLY believed that men are just evil, and to be blamed for all the world’s problems. Which is… worrying.

For so much of the text, especially later on, Curfew boils down to an “Us vs. Them” (men vs. women). It is actually quite the motivator in the big reveal, though I won’t reveal how. It’s also something I found stupid—a poor attempt at tying up a loose end. The murder case itself I found to be clumsy. The police aren’t terribly competent. Or professional. For the most part they bumble around trying to pin the murder on one suspect after another, without paying much attention to, like, evidence. They seem convinced that the Curfew is completely infallible—except for one lone officer, Pamela, who’s on the brink of retirement.

My biggest issue with the mystery is with the body itself. The story takes place in two parts: a flashback starting three weeks earlier and including several POVs (which takes up most of the story), and a present day (and intermittent chapter) following a single POV, Pamela. One of the most important aspects of a whodunnit is to not give too much away at any given point. You really want to parcel information out at increments, let the reader guess and try to puzzle it out for themselves. But Curfew provides contrasting information up front, and it all gets a little muddied come the end. Early on a body is discovered, and it’s noted that the fingerprints of the victim don’t match any in their database. The problem is that all the main characters in Curfew (save one) are police, government employees, or teachers—all professions which require fingerprinting. Which meant that the corpse could really only be one person. Only that it couldn’t be that simple. And so by the time the Big Reveal eventually came, I’d been assuming that the author was going to completely ignore the whole fingerprint thing from earlier. It doesn’t count as a plot twist if you just provide false information up front.

Oh—and this is just a note—at one point a detective visits a woman’s cohab flat and judges that a gaming console is out of place in her place and must therefore belong to man. Thus perpetuating the stereotype that women don’t play video games. Which is ridiculous.

TL;DR

Curfew raises many good points about sexual assault, domestic violence, and unequal pay. But so much of it comes across as misandristic that it’s hard for me to fully untangle the two. Honestly, I’m not convinced that the author doesn’t actually believe that most men are evil. The story itself runs along quite nicely, though there are more than a few holes in the plot and hiccups in the story. It’s a fairly quick read, but profoundly disappointed me with the execution of the mystery and the bleakness of the message such that I never felt that I really enjoyed it. The history and lore could’ve done with a bit of expanding, as I never really felt that enough had been done to steer humanity down this path. And maybe most importantly: I’m not saying that men aren’t assholes. Some of them are, definitely. I’m just saying some people are assholes—there’s no need to be so restrictive about it.

Ogres – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone

Dystopian, Novella

Rebellion/Solaris; March 15, 2022

144 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my bias. Many thanks to Rebellion/Solaris for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Torquell is a troublemaker. Young, impulsive, foolhardy—he is often treated like a precocious scamp by the people of his village. His father is less than pleased with this as he is the village headman, who would someday like his son to take over for him. But Torquell shows no interest in that, choosing instead to escape into the forest and spend time with the landless outlaws that roam the wood. And his father has made his peace with this, because there’s more dangerous things than those in the wood.

Those things are their landlords, their masters, their betters. The Ogres are larger than life, with great hulking bodies and strength and appetites to match. They are often ruled by these appetites, and their temperaments, which can shift to fury in a moment. For unlike ‘men, Ogres have a wild fury about them, often stoked by the foolish things mortal ‘men do. They might kill these monkeys on a whim, but they only rarely eat them.

Well, semi-rarely. Ish.

When Torquell lifts his hand to the landlord’s son, he calls down the Ogres wrath upon his kin. With nowhere left to turn, Torquell flees before the might of the masters, but finds it is often difficult to run from one’s destiny. For most ‘men are content to cower and serve, but Torquell is not most men.

He is a hero.


“My fellows are really not happy with you, Torquell.”

It’s such an understatement that you blink. “Good?” you try.

Ogres is a bit of an oddity as it’s written almost exclusively in the 2nd person. While that’s something that is often difficult to pull off, this novella handles it quite nicely. Part of this might be its small size (which at least helped), but the writing style and story also pair nicely with this choice, combining to convey Torquell’s tale as something of a legend, or epic. Which makes perfect sense, as Torquell is a hero.

Ogres starts as many other stories (especially dystopians) do: with an assertion. “This is how the world is”. And the point of the tale—at least in part—is to discern just how or why the world is this way, and what’s to be done about it. In this particular world, Ogres rule over their flock like gods; masters uncrossed and unequaled by ‘man, culling and controlling the populace to ensure no one rises above their place. With all the climate-change novellas that Tchaikovsky has put out recently, it’s refreshing to see a new tact. But while this may not be the obvious connotation (of a world ruined), it isn’t not that. I won’t spoil the mystery, as to just how or why this came to be, I’ll just say that you shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an allegory for life somewhere within. If you’re familiar at all with Tchaikovsky however, this will hardly shock you.

It’s quite a good read, honestly. Tchaikovsky’s short fiction is surprisingly good—often stronger than his novel-length works of late. And he’s been very consistent—pumping out 1-2 novellas a year like clockwork. One of the best parts about them is that they don’t read like a novella, and Ogres is no exception. Although it is a shorter read, the text does not skimp on world-building; the world is well-formed, detailed, and well-rounded, set up, and executed. While it loses some of this depth in the later stages, by then the plot is firmly int he driver’s seat and the audience isn’t going anywhere. I had absolutely no trouble reading this, and I hope you’ll prove the same. While I didn’t spend much time within its pages, Ogres left a long lasting impression, somewhat in contrast to its smaller size. The only negative I can give this is its price tag—which has become all the more common of late. $10 is too much for an ebook, particularly one that will probably only last 3-5 hours. But it’s no less expense than anything else nowadays, and is actually cheaper than a comparable story from the likes of Tor.com.

A Psalm for the Well-Built – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #1

Science Fiction, Novella

Tor.com; July 13, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

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Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

A Psalm for the Well-Built, the sixth book I’ve read by Becky Chambers, left me with some of the most lasting messages I’ve ever had from a book—although were maybe not the ones that she intended to. Let’s get into it.

Countless years before, the robots of Panga gained their sentience. They didn’t speak, didn’t kill their former masters—they simply laid down their tools and walked out of the factories, disappearing into the wilderness beyond the bounds of human civilization. Since then, no one has seen or heard from them, and life has carried on.

Sibling Dex serves as a monk of Allalae, the Summer Bear. Driven by something they can’t explain—a thought, a feeling, a longing for something more, something different, not to mention a distinct longing for the sound of crickets—Dex abruptly changes their focus to that of a tea monk wandering the outer villages on the frontier. It’s a big change from life in the City: an ox-bike and a wagon instead of their usual quarters; a life lived without the hustle and bustle, without the press of buildings, and crowds of people; the bounds of civilization giving way to the wilds of nature.

But there are no crickets.

Spurned by this, Sibling Dex abandons the hinterlands for the expanse of the outer wilderness in hopes of finding one of the lost orthopterans. It is here that they meet the robot.

The robot that is seeking humans. More specifically, their answer to one very important question: “What do people need?”

Unfortunately this is something that changes depending on who you ask, and when. Thus the robot will need to ask it a lot, all the time. Starting, obviously, with Sibling Dex.

Without constructs, you will unravel few mysteries. Without knowledge of the mysteries, your constructs will fail. These pursuits are what makes us, but without comfort, you will lack the strength to sustain either.

The story of this was something that hit close to home for me, as I’m sure it will for so many of my generation. So many people who are feeling lost, or are longing for something more, something different. After all this is one of the reasons why people are quitting their jobs nowadays to live life on the road, one day at a time, simultaneously looking for something simpler yet something more. After reading the first chapter I spent a sleepless night simply wondering over my life, my choices, and what the solution to it all might be. Honestly, I feel like it’s this message—rather than the one that emerges from the plot at the Well-Built’s conclusion—that has stuck with me. This quest for… something, that Sibling Dex finds themselves on. But then that’s not entirely unexpected; it’s a theme prevalent in so much of Chambers fiction—a search for meaning.

Once we get into the plot a bit more and the story starts to unfold, however, there’s a new theme. A philosophical one I’m seeing a lot more of lately. One that flaunts conventional religion and belief and custom as old-world. While I won’t get into my own particular (and odd, variable) beliefs on the subject, I will say that I found it just a bit too preachy for my tastes, whether or not I share the author’s belief. (Again, I won’t get into that here. Feel free to email me if you’re interested, want to argue about something, want to piss me off, or you’re just bored, I guess.) Because I read books for fun—and any particularly judgy tone never helped.

Other parts of the philosophy I didn’t mind—such as the urge to fix the planet before it’s ruined from climate-change and the like—but is sure to alienate others. And other bits that came across as jokes but might not have been, or vice versa.

“Is this typical of people, to apologize to things you kill?”

“Yeah.”

“Hm!” the robot said with interest. It looked at the plate of vegetables. “Did you apologize to each of these plants individually as you harvested them, or in aggregate?”

“We… don’t apologize to plants.”

“Why not?”

See, laugh if you want, but this is one of the reasons I’m not a vegetarian.

TL;DR

I did enjoy the jaunt through nature, seeing and feeling the world that Chambers’ has built—both those of the robots’ and humans’ making. The story itself was good but a little underwhelming in its conclusion. Now I know it’s a novella, and there is a promise of more in the future, but still I would’ve liked the story to leave me with more of a lasting imprint than the question: “What am I doing with my life?” But given how late the robot enters the story, I’m not surprised we didn’t get much. Still, I enjoyed the leads, especially Sibling Dex, and would certainly spend more time with them. I loved the world, and the ideas, and the peace that so much of the text instilled (interspersed with snippets attempting to convince me my life was a lie, which weren’t something I could fully discount, so…) Overall… I’d definitely still count it as a win. Something I’d recommend. Something I’d like to see more of.

With an ebook price of $11 (or £7.40 if you live in the UK, 9,40€ in the EU) and a length under 200 pages, this isn’t something I would recommend buying, just to read it. If you read it and want to own it—great! Knock yourself out. Otherwise, maybe get it on sale or something. I picked up a copy from my local library, which is also a good idea. I think you can also get it through Scribd, which I’ve only just discovered, so I’m unclear exactly. Personally I wouldn’t recommend paying the Tordotcom price for an ebook, but hey, it’s your money.

Crank Palace – by James Dashner (Review)

The Maze Runner #3.5

Dystopian, YA, Novella

Riverdale Avenue Books; November 23, 2020

109 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

1 / 5 ✪

May contain minor spoilers for the Maze Runner series.

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review (I thought). Many thanks to Riverdale Books and NetGalley, through which they provided me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

For every outstanding, glowing, 5-star review, there will be a dissenting opinion. These two will help a reader on the fence decide if a book is ultimately right for them. So you see, I’m providing an important service.

I picked this up because I wasn’t fully on board with the Flare, and everything that happened in the original trilogy. I wanted the closure, that the final book failed to provide. I was hoping that this would help fill in some gaps, help us understand the Flare, and provide some insight into Newt’s motivations behind his departure and his friends’ journey without him. If by chance you picked this up for the same reasons, you’re out of luck.

Crank Palace is the story of Newt, a six-year old who has lost his friends, but is still stuck in the same imaginary world of a disease that not only drives people insane, but also kills them. Or, he’s a teenager with the emotional range of a six-year old. Or the author just didn’t put enough effort into his story.

I’ve never been a fan of Dashner’s writing style, something I complained about throughout the original series, but came in hoping that it was something that he’d honed with time and practice.

Newt wished the Flare was a person so he could kick its arse.

Well, that was a mistake.

There is actually a journey in Crank Palace, and some decisions that don’t entirely contradict all the others, unfortunately these are few and far between. While Newt’s attitude towards his friends from the Maze remain constant, nothing else shows nearly the same consistency. Of all the characters in this, Newt is the only one that shows even a hint of growth, and it is counteracted at almost every turn by the rest of the stupid s*** he does.

The other main character, Keisha, is just a walking contradiction. In one scene she shoots someone in a desperate attempt to defend her only child, Dante. Immediately afterwards she attempts to defend Newt as well, someone who she literally just met, and was never suspicious of for a second. Then she worries over staying with him since he has the Flare, and wonders if her kid will be safe. Right after that she leaves Dante with Newt while she heads off on her own.

The whole story is based on the letter from the series which sees Newt abandon his friends so that they don’t have to watch him slowly descend into madness, so that they can focus on their mission and cure the Flare. But his range of emotions don’t ever transcend this one moment, and neither does his plan. It’s repeated over and over that he’s leaving them so that they can focus without him acting as a burden, otherwise he may distract them. This is a sentiment I can understand. Literally the only one from him over the entirety of the tale.

The man’s name has finally been revealed as Terry—the most unlikely name Newt could imagine.

He will occasionally remember things from his previous life, but they are few and far between, and won’t mention them until after he’s already exhibited some knowledge he shouldn’t have, only to say “oh yeah, I just remembered it”. It’s an entirely too convenient way of telling the story, and one that mostly just annoyed me. At one point a cell phone becomes central to the plot, when our heroes receive a message from someone in their past they thought was dead. But not only does no one have cell phones anymore, but the cell towers shouldn’t even work. Not to mention that the phone is stolen, so there’s no possible way they could have received a message from anyone they knew. But it becomes a huge plot device, which basically defines the story.

This 100 page novella took me over a week to get through, despite its length. More than once I had to go back to see what the characters were talking about, only to find no mention of it. It’s been a little since I finished the series, but reviewed the specifics before I began this novella. I had originally planned to read it much earlier, but was immediately put off by a note I received from the publisher when it kindly granted me a copy.


Your request has been approved on the basis that you have a strong interest in the book’s subject matter and that you review books.  If you request a book that turns out not to based on your interests or the genres you read, and find that it is not to your liking, or you chose not to finish reading the book (DNF), the author would appreciate it if you did not review it.

Asking me not to review it because I DNFed it is one thing, but asking me not to if I didn’t like it sounds a lot like the publisher/author is looking for “only positive feedback”. Which is ridiculous. After all, it granted me a review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review—unless I didn’t like it, in which case they would appreciate if I kept my mouth shut.

So, I took a year to calm down (which I did, until I read it again). Sadly, it doesn’t help that the book is nonsense.

Crank Palace is currently selling for $7 in the US and 5£ in the UK. It somehow has a rating of over four stars on Goodreads. I would suggest that you go check out some other reviews of it, unless you weren’t a fan of the original series. In which case maybe just forget it.

Murder By Other Means – by John Scalzi (Review)

The Dispatcher #2

Scifi, Mystery

Subterranean Press; April 30, 2021

192 pages (ebook)
3hr 33m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Times are tough. Even as a dispatcher, Tony Valdez is forced into taking some gigs he otherwise might not have. Jobs in a legal grey area. After one of these, Tony takes his earnings to the bank, only to get himself embroiled in a robbery. A robbery involving a person Tony is quite familiar with—a dispatcher, like himself.

But it’s only when the robbery goes wrong that this peculiar fact is brought to light. When the dispatcher dies—he doesn’t come back.

It’s only then that Tony finds out that this particular death may not be so peculiar after all. In fact, several dispatchers have died recently. Died and stayed dead. And for reasons neither Tony nor anyone else seems aware of, he may soon join them. But how do you kill someone when 999 out of 1000 people murdered are magically restored to life? The answer is to murder them… by other means.

The second Dispatcher novella, John Scalzi returns us to a world without murder. A recession has infected this dystopia, and Dispatchers aren’t the only ones struggling to get by. Tony Valdez plays lead fiddle in this once again, with some few returning characters from the first entry. Again the text is dialogue heavy, but this doesn’t flow quite as well as the first one did. The story isn’t quite as immersive, nor does it seem as polished as it did the first time around. In fact, it seems a little like a rush-job. The premise itself is still a good one, however. And given this interesting world to explore—especially how one goes about murdering someone without actually doing the murdering—even a less polished product will do.

The detective story itself, ironically, I found better than the first. There was more suspense and intrigue, as opposed to the first where I called the ending inside the first half hour. This time I hadn’t a clue what was going on until at least the halfway mark, which made it all the more interesting. It was the back and forth with Detective Langdon that ruined it for me. In fact, I didn’t like either of their characters as much this time around. Tony acts a bit too much of a little-goody-two-boots, despite his less-than-legal behavior throughout much of the books. I found it more than a bit hypocritical.

Now, it’s still a good story, still a good read, still a good time—I just didn’t like it as much as the original. As far as whether I’d recommend it… mostly, yeah? The Subterranean Press copy is quite nice, but I don’t think it’s worth $40. The ebook version comes in at $6 (or £4.35) which is much better. The audiobook is free on Audible—and it’s hard to beat free.

Gallowglass – by S.J. Morden (Review)

I really like how the cover captures the mood of the book: blue, lonely, dark.

Standalone

Science Fiction

Gollancz; December 10, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

I often complain about science fiction that’s all fiction and no science, that I like more science with my fiction. Gallowglass certainly tested this. There’s a heavy dose of science in this scifi adventure—some might say too much, others too little.

Jaap van der Veerden lives the life of the ultra-wealthy; all his needs and wants are met instantly, he exists surrounded by servants that he never sees, his parents are even exploring the prospect of eternal life. But Jaap doesn’t share his family’s transhumanism desires. All he wants—all he’s ever wanted—is to live his own life, outside of his family’s influence, outside of the bubble of wealth surrounding him. And so Jaap concocts a plan to escape his family, knowing that even if he does succeed, he’ll be hunted as a fugitive for the rest of his natural life.

But once he escapes, what then?

Jaap (now known as Jack) accepts a berth on the only ship that will take him, the only one that cares nothing for his past nor the reach of his family, a ship and crew he knows nothing about with heading nor mission unknown. But Jack seeks only escape—it doesn’t matter where it is.

That is, until it does.

For when Jack discovers the goal of the expedition is an elusive asteroid, and that the team of misfits he’s joined are all as desperate as he is, he might just come to regret his choices to leave his big, comfy mansion and eternal life within. For there is more than just a big rock at the end of their voyage, but the prospect of death, a million euros, and a second chance.

Gallowglass features some very in-depth science throughout. Not gonna lie—I LOVED this. There’re discussions about plotting and vectors and orbits and math and data and science and… well, at times the repetitive parts of data and plotting do get a little old. But even during those times I loved that the book was so heavily chock full of science. There are a few points where the technology itself is suspect, however. Like, we’re mining and commandeering asteroids. We’ve developed artificial gravity (at least kinda). Diamond tethers and filaments are a thing. And yet the spacesuits are still as fragile as a teddybear in a razorblade factory. Even the tiniest bit of debris can be a death sentence. We’ve developed lines that’ll never break, but not armored any suits? Seems ridiculous to me.

So, for the longest time I thought this story was about Jack. But then, no, it must be a tale of redemption. Oh no wait, it’s about the asteroid. No, maybe it was about Jack. Jack remains the POV throughout, but…

And then by the end… what is this about? (The ending is really lame, FYI.) The official blurb—which I didn’t quote—would have you believe this is a book about climate change. But… it’s really not. There are quotes about climate change at the start of every chapter. These are pretty much worthless (adding nothing nor relating to the story in any way) and I started ignoring a little ways in. They ARE about climate change, at least. Which, for the longest time, nothing else is. Eventually it’s alluded to, but the story never really BECOMES about climate change. It’s only really dwelt on at the end, and by that point I wasn’t sure why I should care about it. I mean, climate change is bad. Okay? It is. Just when it suddenly becomes the all-encompassing reason right at the end—I didn’t buy it.

Then what is Gallowglass about? Well, “gallowglass” would argue that it’s a book about people. About a certain kind of people (a “gallowglass” is mercenary or some special type of soldier) (yes, I had to look it up). And that’s… difficult, as no single person gets any kind of gratifying resolution at the end. So, maybe it’s a book about the gallowglass lifestyle? I mean… maybe, but. During no time when I was actually reading it did I have any real idea of what the focus of the book was.

While I enjoyed the characters of Gallowglass itself—particularly Jack and his arc and the way his character develops—it was the story that really kept me reading. Even when I had NO IDEA what the heck the story was about. Even with my issues with the tech, the pace, the way the story randomly skips ahead at times. Even up through the 99% mark, where the ending was bombing. Even with all this, I do not regret the time I spent reading this. I legitimately and thoroughly enjoyed this book. For Gallowglass, it’s not about the destination—it’s the journey to it that matters. And while that journey may be a immersive, complex and ofttimes directionless masterpiece, it’s still a great read.

TL;DR

I was definitely torn on Gallowglass. It’s an immersive wonder. It features absolutely no resolution for anyone. Jack shows wonderful character development, age, and progression. None of the other characters shine, and few are even memorable. The story is a really good one, considering… I mean, what this book is even about is a matter of constant bother. Even now, I’m not sure. There were times I wanted to stop reading Gallowglass, but never could bring myself to. The destination was a no-show, but I’m still thankful for the journey. It’s not going to get my highest rating, but it still gets a full recommendation.

Automatic Reload – by Ferrett Steinmetz (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Cyberpunk, Scifi, Romance

Tor Books; July 28, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A cyborg with a conscience. A genetically enhanced assassin who suffers panic attacks. A love story for the ages—albeit kind of an odd one. A cyberpunk-romance about two heavily augmented badasses who take on the world, and have a breakdown when it gets to be too much. A couple that is more machine than man, but turn out to be more human than most of us.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

Mat is one the best at what he does—a black-market merc with a heart of silver (not quite gold, but close). A killing machine that would rather not have to, and manages to do his job without as much as possible. And does it far better than most humans. That’s because Mat is more than your average human. He’s post-human: a cybernetically enhanced body-hacker who uses his deadly, deadly augmentations to save innocent lives.

He’s the best at what he does for two reasons. One, because he maintains his equipment and preps for his missions with an OCD mentality. He lives and breathes cybernetics—always tweaking his limbs to improve performance and firepower, to minimize casualties rather than increase them, obsessively watching and rewatching video of his previous assignments to learn what he could’ve done better, who he could’ve saved. He takes posthumanism to the next level—a search for perfection.

And two, he never strays into the light of day. Mat is the big fish in his stretch of river, and he likes it that way. As such, he makes a point never to draw too much attention to himself. If any of the bigger fish from downstream noticed, they might fancy a trip up. And if any fishermen caught wind of him, they might stop by. But behind both the fish and fishermen, there’s a larger threat. The IAC—called the “Yak”. They’re the shark-man in this scenario. The uh… landshark. The government agency that makes body-hackers disappear forever. And Mat would do anything to keep off there radar. But, like everyone else, it appears this self-preservation has a price.

And that’s $3 million for two hours.

With the biggest score of his life on the line, Mat accepts a mission he knows is trouble from the outset. And it all snowballs not an hour in. When an unknown power attacks his convoy, Mat learns that the shipment he’s been contracted to protect isn’t a package at all. It’s a woman.

Enter Silvia: genetically engineered assassin and ultimate badass. And current prisoner of the IAC. The organization that no one wants to be at war with. The shadow cabal that Mat has done his best to avoid, his entire life. And two minutes after meeting Silvia he decides to throw it all away. And frees her.

But when the biggest score of his life turns into its biggest fight, Mat learns three things surprisingly quickly—one, he’s not the big fish anymore. Even with the IAC, the police and other body-hackers out to get him, it becomes clear that Silvia is the biggest fish. She’s Jaws and this is her movie. Two—whatever else Silvia may look like, the woman beneath the mask is ultimately more interesting than the assassin itself. With reflexes Mat would kill for but a self-confidence that provokes a panic attack every other action, Silvia is definitely more than meets the eye. And three—whatever else you might say about their issues, the two are infinitely better together than apart.

But will they be allowed to explore this budding romance in full, or will Jaws end like the movie—with the shark dead, the romance over, no chance of a sequel, and not a dry eye in the theater?

Automatic Reload is a cyberpunk-romance thriller—it’s what would’ve happened if Nicholas Sparks had authored Altered Carbon, only with more explosions and panic attacks. Written by ‘Mancer author Ferrett Steinmetz, it’s the action-adventure blockbuster I wanted, with the relatable stories I needed. No, I’m not talking about the government-trained assassin bit. Nor the cybernetic ally augmented super-solider. I’m talking about both. Mat only lost the first limb. Shredded in a military mishap, it was replaced with a prosthetic that promised better, faster, stronger performance than the original. From there it was easy to see the promise of posthumance. He quickly swapped out the old meat-suit for a fresh batch of new toys; a body that would manage to correct all the mistakes of the flesh that he couldn’t fix himself. Mat was after the power to safe others, only at the cost of himself.

Silvia didn’t choose her augments. Where Mat went with the body-hacker enhancement option, Silvia went the therapy route. Experimental, government, classified therapy. In hindsight, most of those should’ve been red flags. But at the time, she was desperate. Desperate to get on her own two feet, to get her life together—to please her family. The family that had done everything for her; her Mama, who both supported and belittled her, but loved her more than anything; and Vala, her sister, who lived and died for Silvia, fighting to build her up whenever their mother put Silvia down. Though the government reformed her body, they didn’t repair her mind. I guess that was Step B in therapy.

I related very well with each of these characters. While I know nothing about being a soldier, I know everything about depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and not feeling in control of your own mind. It’s an incredibly humbling, immensely frustrating experience. One that has you often desperate for a miracle cure: something that can fix you, fix everything, the dream of post-humanism. A role that Mat and Silvia fill perfectly. There is so never any chance of perfection in life—despite the fact that this is what Mat does, what he strives for day after day—it’s just a pipe dream. Silvia is about as far from perfection as one can get. Not only can she not control her mind, her body is suddenly alien as well. Before, neither has lived very well. But now, they are forced with a decision. Apart, the odds of survival are almost nil. Together… well, it’s higher. So, better together. Better together, but not perfect.

But life is never perfect, and death the only alternative.

TL;DR

An amazing cyberpunk adventure. Action-packed, romantically steamy, emotionally unstable, and more—Mat and Silvia represent a team that I’d love to see more of down the road. A few unique and unexpected twists later on in the story kept the plot intriguing, and never hard to read. I have very few complaints about this book. The story was great. The trials and travails faced within were both relatable and inspiring. Despite the leads being debatably “more-than human”, each demonstrated their humanity perfectly. It’s unclear whether the text argues more for or against transhumanism. I think it makes the case for posthumance, but urges restraint. But you can decide for yourself. My biggest issues were with the world-building—that we so rarely got a glimpse of the world outside the immediate story—though it’s a minor gripe. Truth is, I loved this book. Probably my best of the year thus far. Easily recommend.

An Ember in the Ashes – by Sabaa Tahir (Review)

An Ember in the Ashes #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Razorbill; April 28, 2015

464 pages (ebook) 15hr 22min (audio)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

In the Martial Empire, no one is free.

Laia is a Scholar—one the Empire’s second class citizens. Her people have been oppressed by the ruling class for years, good for nothing except servitude and slavery. Some few have elevated to craftsmen and above, but none are trusted. Laia’s parents wanted something better for the Scholars; so they were killed. Years later Laia lives with her grandparents and her brother, Darin, but that too is about to change.

When he’s caught with sketches of a Martial forge, Darin is arrested for treason. Her grandparents are killed, their shop burned to the ground; the work of a Mask—the Empire’s faceless assassins. Laia manages to escape—but her alone. With no other option, she is forced to turn to the Resistance, though they’ve already ruined her life once.

Elias is a soldier. Born a Veturius—the daughter of one of the most renowned and elite families in the Empire—he was the son Keris never wanted. As such he grew up a faceless tribesman, before he was found out and brought home to the Empire by his grandfather. There he was sent to Blackcliff, the prestigious military academy, to follow in his mother’s footsteps. It was an honor he never dreamt of and a fate he never wanted.

As Laia is a slave by birth, so too is Elias.

Yet neither is keen to stay that way.

Elias plans to defect, to leave the Empire—and his family—behind. But the Augurs, immortal architects of the Empire, have other plans. See, the Emperor is dying, and without an heir, the line won’t last the year. And so a contest is announced to determine the next ruler—and the Augurs want it to be Elias.

Meanwhile, all Laia wants is her brother. But the Resistance isn’t willing to free him for nothing. So to help her brother, Laia is recruited as a spy. She is to gather information about the Empire: their movements, their secrets, anything useful—and report it to the Resistance. But to free Darin, she has to find something worthwhile. And to find something worthwhile, she has to go somewhere important. Somewhere like Blackcliff.

*—•—*

I read about 70% of this as an audiobook, before my library loan expired. Then, I read the rest as an ebook. While both were decent platforms, the audio was highly immersive, with great voice talent that really got into their parts. Though I probably read through the most tense, thrilling, and heart-pounding sections at the end, I never enjoyed the story more than in its audio-format.

All in all, I was a big fan of AEitA. But… I think it was a little too intense for me. This book has all the tension of a YA fantasy under the constant strain of puberty. I mean, CONSTANT. Laia is high-energy paranoid, and with the stress of having to save her only brother WHILE going undercover in Blackcliff knowing that all the previous spies that have done so have died AND ostensibly doing it alone—it kind of shows. She is highly strung, but for a very good reason. This made her chapters all high-energy, fully pumped up, heart-pounding stress and tension. Elias, meanwhile, is almost as intense; trying to survive Blackcliff, while dealing with the added pressure garnered by the name Veturius, and the constant tug-of-war between his desire to desert the Empire and the loyalty he shares with his few friends and comrades, particularly his best friend Helene—whom he may or may not be in love with. [Yes, I realize those were both run-on sentences—no, I am not rewriting them.]

Both POVs confronted the normal issues YA stories deal with. But instead of one or two, they decided to tackle pretty much ALL OF THEM. Which, understandably, made everything pretty intense, energetic, and angsty. I found myself conflicted between the desire to find out what happened next and the need to stop reading and avoid the wave of stress that only YA development can cause.

As such, the romance was in parts fierce, intense and terribly awkward. As most YA romance is, generally. While I loved the characters in AEitA, none were stronger than those of its love-triangle. And while I hate everything about love-triangles in books, since I loved all the characters within this one—I still hated it. I’m not getting into this now. Or ever. Sufficient to say that I find said triangles to be awkward, annoying, angsty, and an unwelcome flashback to my youth where everything was awkward and so brutally important and cringe-worthy all the time. The romance wasn’t a bad-teen-romcom or together-forever romance. But it wasn’t not these things either.

As I said, I loved the characters. Elias and Helene dominated one half of the text, and as the story progressed, both characters continued to grow and develop. As does the relationship between the two. On the other side, we have Laia and Keenan (a Resistance fighter). I never bought into this romance, which seemed like it was introduced just to counter the possible Elias-Helene one. Keenan barely gets any screen time, and remains as weak and unfleshed a character as when he was introduced. And, while I mostly enjoyed Laia, she also infuriated me. Where Elias developed, she pretty much remained the same. Stubborn, paranoid, and standoffish—pretty much early stages Katniss throughout the whole book. Towards the end, her chapters began to annoy me in a very startling way—which was both good and bad. Bad, as she was frustrating. Good, as it demonstrated just how much I had bought into the story.

The characters of Markus and Keris were also quite strong. Okay, so mainly just Keris. Where Markus was your classic unhinged sociopath, Keris showed depth, change and insight—a potent combination for a character obviously designed to be a villain. Over the course of the book, we get to see quite a lot more of Elias’s mother than would be comfortable, but I was surprised to find a logic behind her thoughts and actions, and a justification later on. I’m not giving anything away—just that it was eye-opening to say the least.

The only other weakness I can think of is the setting. The world isn’t very well fleshed out in the first book, something I hope is corrected in further installments. I’d like to see more of the land beyond deserts, imposing fortresses, prisons, cities and tunnels. It all had kind of a dark and dreary cast in my imagination—I’d like to see a bit more vibrance from the setting in the future. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the supernatural world would be nice as well. We’re given just a peek of it in AEitA, with hardly any accompanying explanation.

TL;DR

While it may seem like your classic, run-of-the-mill YA fantasy-romance, An Ember in the Ashes isn’t satisfied with just tackling a few of the YA tropes—it does them all. Youthful development, romance, growth, love, hate, war, depth, sacrifice and compromise—seriously, it does them ALL. And though it helped make this read incredibly immersive, it was the characters that made it real for me. Elias and Helene, and Laia, were strong enough to carry the story through a dark and dreary, unassuming world, filled with men and monsters alike, as well as some of both. What brought me back to earth was the romance—a cringe-worthy dual love-triangle—one side of which never felt real. Adding to this was Laia’s refusal to develop, maintaining the detached, stubborn cast she’d cultivated throughout the entire text. When the rubber hit the road and all the threads converged, Laia stubbornly kept on as she had, annoying me and the plot alike.

While it has both ups and downs, An Ember in the Ashes definitely puts more to the good than the ill, making it a must-read YA fantasy that hopefully will only get better with time. A tetralogy (means “four”) that is set to wrap up later this year, An Ember in the Ashes continues with A Torch Against the Night, a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading. Probably as an audiobook. After that… we’ll see how it goes.

Firewalkers – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Novella

Scifi, Post-Apoc

Solaris; May 12, 2020

208 pages (ebook)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

The second Tchaikovsky novella in two years, Firewalkers features a cast entirely too young to drink, but old enough to wander the post-apocalyptic wastes of the world, fighting and dying for nothing more exotic to us than A/C. Hitting the shelves next week, most of us will be forced to get it via ebook, though it proves entertaining in any format. Just make sure you appreciate the cover—courtesy of Gemma Sheldrake—which is quite eye-catching, don’t you think?

The city of Ankara Achouka isn’t perfect. There’s never enough food, medicine, or water. There are rolling blackouts, if you can find electricity at all. Jobs are scarce, money is even scarcer. But here, at the base of the Anchor, those things are at least present. The rest of the planet is burning. Deserts and wastelands cover the world, the only refuge from the dying world being aboard the Grand Celeste—the only space station in orbit above the Earth. A space station connected via space elevator at Ankara.

At the base of the elevator sits the Anchor—the only area of government control left in Ankara, perhaps even the world—and within its domain the so-called “Roach Hotel”, a resort that caters to the super-rich and elite, so named for the fact that they check in, but never check out. This is where those powerful or connected enough spend their last days on planet, before ascending the elevator to orbit and the Grand Celeste. The hotel has food, water, and amenities. Amenities including A/C, since just because the planet is burning, god forbid the 1%-ers get a little uncomfortable.

But when the power goes on the fritz, someone has to go check and repair the solar panels—located far the south amidst the desolate wastes. Enter the Firewalkers. They leave the city to scavenge, scout, and yes, fix the power. Firewalkers are all young and desperate. Or the insane. They have a short life-expectancy, on account of the raiders, the predators, the heat, the desolation, the unknown beyond the bounds of Ankara Achouka. Only those with no future and no better option would consider the life of a Firewalker.

Mao is one such man. A legend at only nineteen—a middling age for one of his profession—he once walked back to Ankara through the wastes after an accident that killed his entire crew. Joining him are Lupé and Hotep, two of the best in their respective fields. Their mission: to restore the power to the Roach Hotel, before some of the elite lose their cool. Their lives have already been filled with disaster, but this trip into the wastes may well be their last.

If Adrian Tchaikovsky is the master of anything, it’s science fiction. Specifically science fiction with the most distasteful of organisms. His Shadows of the Apt series features a whole host of insects, while the Echoes of the Fall deals with predators. Children of Time plays host to spiders, and several novellas feature several other creepy crawlies. This one is no different, as, in Firewalkers, he returns to bugs.

I can’t get much into it without giving everything away, but if you have a problem with or a phobia of insects… maybe skip this one? Otherwise it’s a highly entertaining post-apocalyptic read. The characters are lovely, each with their own personalities and loyalties that evolved to impressive levels, particularly with this only being a novella (albeit a long one). All are well-written, as each portrays both strengths and weaknesses, making them seems very, very human.

The setting itself is quite interesting—something of a cross between the world of Metro and the Darwin Elevator, with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos thrown right in. Though I’d really’ve liked to know more about the state of the world. There’re hints of additional space elevators, the status of which is unknown. The setting itself is a bit of a mystery; I was guessing Africa somewhere, though the most famous Ankara is in Turkey. Other than these few hints, the world itself is hidden in the fog. Or, it’s burned up. There’s very little given. It’s more the kind of story that’s “here’s the world, this is how it is—it’s not about what happened, it’s about the future”. I have a mind curious for details; I always wonder after what’s happened before.

While the story itself is pretty good, it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read by Tchaikovsky. Firewalkers takes a decent amount of time to get moving, and there’re distractions along the way. It’s a solid 4-star tale, though there was a bit of a letdown at the end. Nothing big—the story was completed and all threads tied up nicely—it was just a bit underwhelming. While once I got into the meat of it I had no problem reading to the end, it took some time to get to the meat, as it were.

TL;DR

With a landscape like that of Hades and a plot out of Metro, Firewalkers tells a post-apocalyptic tale not quite like any other. Together with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos, it makes for an entertaining read—with excellent characters, a provocative setting, and good writing throughout. However, the story takes a bit to get off the ground, and wanders a bit more upon doing so. Additionally, the world-building itself seems incomplete, with little more told than those aspects directly relevant to the matter at hand. All in all, Firewalkers is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of the author, or short on reading material.

Emergency Skin – by N.K. Jemisin (Review)

Forward Collection #3

Scifi, Dystopian

Brilliance Audio; September 17, 2019

33 pages (ebook) 1hr 4m (audiobook)

4 / 5 ✪

Imagine, if you will, an Earth that has died. It had advanced so rashly, so perilously, without taking into account the weakness of some members of its society and how surely they would lead to its eventual destruction. Now this destruction has come to pass. Your ancestors, by some stroke of luck, have survived, ferried away by the last vestiges of humanity to scrape out a living aboard a distant colony-ship with the remnants of your species.

Now imagine your upbringing. You are raised on stories of how the Earth was lost. Whom and what led to its downfall, how it could have been prevented, and how your ancestors had been saved. For years, you were bred for success, strengthened with facts and knowledge, and honed to endure your survival on your eventual mission back home.

Home—to the Earth that was lost. There are some few, primitive peoples still there, backwards and wallowing in their filth, mating with swine and goats while killing and eating one another just to survive. Now you are on a journey back to the homeworld—to retrieve a necessary mechanism essential to the survival of your colony, your people.

Oh, and there are a couple other things your leaders neglected to tell you. Hardly matter, not important. But, they were nice enough to gift you with a cutting-edge implant to monitor your mission and provide any additional details you may require. It has a lovely, sophisticated accent, borne from sophisticated minds. They just neglected to mention how racist, sexist and otherwise terrible it is. And, for that matter, how different the Earth is from the way you’ve pictured it all this time. But those are minor details, footnotes to your quest, which should command your full attention. For your life—no—the survival of your very species, is in your hands.

Behold the master of the second-person narrative point-of-view returns! Yes, we’ll need to work on the title. It IS a bit cumbersome. N.K. Jemisin is back will a short story that will change the way you look at… well, nothing really. It IS quite good though, if just a short diversion from life.

It’s a good short story, but little more. I listened to the audio version, which was about an hour long. There really wasn’t anything world-shattering about it, nothing that changed my perception of reality or shook my worldview. Yes, there was some racism, some sexism, some otherwise blatant bigotry—but it’s not like any of those things are particularly NEW.

It’s a good story; entertaining, immersive. It’s just so short—even though it could’ve been shorter. There’s not much to complain about, but there’s not much to praise either. Jemisin’s writing speaks for itself. She can definitely spin a yarn, that’s for sure. I had a slight issue with just how fast the brainwashing of a lifetime unraveled—it really should’ve taken more time, and I feel like the author purposefully limited the story to keep the length short.

It’s a shame, in a way, but nothing to dwell on. Seeing as how it was free and how it was about an hour read—let’s not overthink things. Read it, if you have Amazon Prime. Read it, if you’re bored, or really like N.K. Jemisin. Read it, if you enjoyed the other Forward stories. Read it for any other reason, but don’t expect to be awed. While the tale isn’t golden, it ain’t bad either.