Black Helicopters – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #2

Horror, Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 1, 2018

202 pages (ebook)
4hr 11m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

1 / 10 ✪

The idea of a “story” is to give an account or description of events, not randomly spout prose and leave it up to the reader to decide what the fuck you’re talking about. I mean, for Book #2 in a series, at the very least.

Enter Black Helicopters. I don’t understand what this is about. And I don’t understand why I don’t understand what this is about. In Agents of Dreamland, we learned that there was an an impending apocalypse, which only Ptolema might prevent, so I thought maybe this would be a continuation of that. And, yeah, Ptolema’s got a POV within, but it’s only one of three. The other two are SOMEONE, who lives in the post-apocalyptic city of Sanctuary (I think) and writes daily letters to her sister, and Johnson, who crews aboard the Argyle Shoelace, a ship at some pre-apocalyptic time that is probably important for some reason that’s not immediately clear. The Signalman makes an appearance, but even he can’t seem to tell us what the fuck is going on. Maybe he doesn’t know.

I realize that Ptolema is out to save the world, but I only know this entirely from the last book, as this one never makes any real sense whatsoever.

• Okay, so a quarter of the way through: I’ve no fucking idea what is going on in this stupid book. I know what it’s SUPPOSED to be—another entry in the Tinfoil Dossier, an alien invasion story happening in the future, unless Ptolema can stop it. But… so far, we just rambled on for 6 chapters (an hour and a half in), and I’ve no idea what’s happening.

• There’s something in the near-future that’s caused the end of the world, but we knew that in the last novella, so this isn’t super informative. There’s a place called Sanctuary, where someone and 66 live. And they hunt alien monsters.

And that’s it.

That could’ve been covered in a letter. Like the ones she writes her sister. Like ONE of the letters she writes.

• We just took 10 minutes and a full chapter saying that aliens landed somewhere at sometime because something and then ended it. The next chapter spouted a prophecy amidst a fountain of nonsense. And now we’re speaking in French (a lot of French) with no translation offered. Helpfully I never learned any French.

• So we’re on a ship—the Argyle Shoestring—that has what to do with what? I can’t make heads or tails of any of the threads of this story. Or what they have to do with the apocalypse and/or preventing it.

I could complain about this one all day, but instead I’ll leave off with a quote I feel sums up the consistency of the text.

“Gentlemen, we have arrived at the oneness of allness, a single cosmic flow. You would label disorder, unreality, inequilibrium, ugliness, discord, inconsistency.

“Checkmate. Because this is the meaning. Black queen white, white queen black. A game of chess played in the temples of Erss, the halls of Discordia. There will be murders on La Manzanna de la Discordia. You know, or may learn of, Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst—not his real name, but let that slide. The gods were not pleased, hence of course all were turned into birds. Even the birds will rain down upon the bay and upon the island. Erss tosses the golden apple and the sea heaves up her judgment upon us all. Watch for the Egyptian, and the arrival of the Twins, and my daughter’s daughter. Watch for Strife, who—warns Homer—is relentless. She is the sister and companion of murderous Ares. She, who was only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows, until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurls down bitterness, equally between both sides, as she walks through the onslaught, making men’s pain heavier. The Calla Lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. Be still—the chaos reigns around you now.”

Normally, I do a summary, then put a quote, then discuss how I feel about the book, the plot, the characters, whatever. But since there’s no way I could’ve done a coherent summary of any plot—mostly because the “story” didn’t seem to have one—I guess I’ll just skip to the end.

TL;DR

If you didn’t read this review, I wouldn’t read the book. Yeah, it was that bad. Nope, it didn’t make any sense. Yup, it even got me to swear in my review of it. And it’s usually got to be pretty fucking bad to do that. The best part of Black Helicopters was the narration. Justine Eyre somehow managed to make parts of this sound pretty good, almost coherent. Too bad none of it was.

I’m actually planning on reading Book #3 of the Tinfoil Dossier, mostly because I can’t believe it can be any worse than #2.

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

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.

The Adams Gambit – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

Thieftaker #5 / The Loyalist Witch #3

Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy

Lore Seekers Press; July 27, 2021

107 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

7 / 10 ✪

Contains Spoilers for The Witch’s Storm and Cloud Prison (Loyalist Witch Parts 1-2) and minor spoilers for the Thieftaker series leading up to now.

October 26, 1770 – Boston

The conclusion to the Loyalist Witch finds former thieftaker, Ethan Kaille, once again pitting his magic against the Crown witch, Charlotte Whitcomb. If you’ve read the previous novellas in the trilogy, you’ll be aware that Whitcomb is a lot less bothered by right and wrong than Kaille, and so is willing to do anything and use anyone in pursuit of her aims.

Throughout the series Charlotte Whitcomb has had two primary goals: the death of Samuel Adams, and the dissolution of the Sons of Liberty. In the Loyalist Witch, Whitcomb targeted Kaille and Adams directly. In the Cloud Prison, she moved her attention to his friends and kin. With these avenues now closed to her, the loyalist witch is now forced to her final gambit—an open bounty on Adams’ head.

By now Ethan Kaille is sworn entirely to the side of liberty. But even so, one hundred pounds is a princely sum, sure to even test his loyalties. But even though it fails to sway him, the bounty is sure to bring hunters from all around the colonies upon Boston. And it’s up to Kaille to fend them off.

Luckily, he has friends and allies to assist him in this fight. Unfortunately, he cannot trust them all to stand beside him. As bounty hunters descend on Boston, Kaille must weed out those he cannot trust from those he would, even as a horde of unknown variables enter his city.

Again, Ethan Kaille confronts Charlotte Whitcomb, with the life of Samuel Adams and the cause of liberty on the line. And while Ethan may have let her walk away in the previous two entries, he’s certainly learnt his lesson about being too lenient.

You know, probably.

If you’ve read any of the rest of the Thieftaker books, you know that Ethan is a big softie. He doesn’t like to kill unless absolutely necessary, and won’t even consider it if the foe he happens to be facing is a woman. …You can probably see where this is headed.

But Charlotte Whitcomb is trying his patience. First, she tried to kill Ethan’s best friend, Diver, and his fiancé. Next, she went after his wife, Kandice. Additionally, she’s been doing her best to off him from the start, along with anyone who gets in her way. But as you may expect, he’s still hoping to avoid killing her. But then, his “hope” is seeming pretty thin. And since Whitcomb is a powerful and connected Crown agent, any non-lethal approach won’t be easy.

And sometimes, you have to take a life to save a life.

While this wasn’t quite as good as the first novella in the sequence, the Adams Gambit is still a decent story. But I have to admit, I’m kinda burned out by Charlotte by this point. Throughout four books and three novellas, we’ve really only had two or three real foes. I’m craving something new, rather than the same exact setup as the last story three times in a row. Luckily, because of the short length, this setup goes by rather quickly. Unfortunately, it is basically a rehash of each of the first two beginnings.

In fact, my biggest issue with the Adams Gambit is that it basically reads like a mashup of the first two in the sequence—albeit with a few twists thrown in. Yes, there is the whole issue of whom we can and cannot trust. Yes, Kaille has to decide whether or not he’s going to deal with Charlotte once and for all, or find some other workaround. Yes, the ending is completely different from the others, and it puts the story to rest. But seeing as how I read it not a week ago, I really should be able to remember something else from the first half—except that it just blends into the from the first two. And again, yes, the second half is new and different and undeniably entertaining—but is it enough?

I would argue, yes, it’s entertaining. And if you read the first two, you’re going to want to complete the sequence. But it really could have been better. The whole Loyalist Witch sequence has started to feel a bit stale. I love concept of Thieftaker and the series up til now, but it’s started to fall into a rut. While I’d very much like to see the series continue, I’d also like for the author to take a chance on something new: a new enemy, a new city, a new cause, a new magic, a new… whatever.

So… still recommended, but with a caveat. It’s not perfect, especially the first half—which feels like it’s been done three times over—but it’s entertaining and completes the overarching story in a unique (if not wholly new) manner.

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

Monk & Robot #1

Science Fiction, Novella

Tor.com; July 13, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
StoryGraph
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.

The Tchaikovsky Novella – Beautiful World of Books

I seems like every year I’m reading one or two Tchaikovsky novellas a year, thinking “Wow, I should really read more of his stuff”—only to read more of his full-length novels and thinking “Wow, why do I like this guy again?” Now, I’ve heard that it’s mostly his recent stuff that’s the problem. That it’s too dry and political. And dry. And boring. Now I’ve also heard that Shards of Earth is different; a return to his older work, his better stuff.

Still, Adrian Tchaikovsky has been pumping out one or two good novellas a year, which is quite impressive considering he’s also writing full-length stuff. For the last four years I’ve read one per—all of which have been excellent—a trend that has extended through this year. So here’s the art of the Tchaikovsky Novella:

And there they are: all the Tchaikovsky novellas from recent years! Do you have more to mention that I failed to include? I probably missed some, the way the guy keeps churning them out. Personally, I’ve read 5 of these 9 so far (the final five, while I haven’t read the first four: Ironclads, Elder Race and either Expert System ones). How many have you read? Or even heard of? And if you’ve never heard of Ogres before now, don’t worry—Tchaikovsky’s latest novella comes out the 15th of March, 2022. And it is as excellent as his recent work, I assure you;)

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.

My Top Novellas of 2021

Welcome to List Season! It is among my most favorite times of the year, where we bloggers wind down the year by the numbers and choose our favorite titles from another year of reading! There’s usually a bit of general overlap, but also quite a bit of gems that haven’t made it onto other’s lists—be they too obscure, too late in a series, or just because not one of us can possibly keep up with all the releases in a single year. This year I’ve decided to do several lists (assuming I follow through), including a Top New Books, Top Old Books, and Top Novellas. In addition, I’ll still be featuring a Christmas Buying Guide like I did last year (and which I thoroughly enjoyed making), but it’ll be a post-Christmas thing designed for gift cards or gifts that might’ve fallen through the cracks.

But first, the Top Novellas!

Each is from 2021, and I’ve had to read them. Otherwise… well, you’ll see! Hope you like them!

#6

Remote Control – by Nnedi Okorafor

GoodreadsReview

$11 ebook / 156 pg

The first entry of this list comes from a novella I picked up from my local library during Scifi Month, as I felt I didn’t have enough science fiction to read otherwise. While not a fan of Binti, I quite enjoyed Remote Control, which is set in a slightly futuristic Ghana, and features extraterrestrial tech, or magic, or something, all revolving around the life of a wee lass, Fatima. It was weird and it was interesting and it was unusual, and it made a for a great read! I do remember it was a wee bit expensive however, so maybe try to find it at a discount.

#5

The Alien Stars – by Tim Pratt

GoodreadsReview

$7 ebook (omnibus edition) / 238 pg

Available as part of an omnibus of three novellas from Pratt’s Axiom universe, the Alien Stars is both the title of the triptych and the third volume within, respectively. For purposes of this #5 spot, I’m referring only to the 3rd novella in the volume, though I’m happy to report the first story was also a good read (don’t get me started on #2)! Try though I might, I couldn’t find it anywhere other than in the omnibus volume, though you may be able to get it on his Patreon somewhere. Anyway, it’s a good read. ‘Nough said.

#4

The Loyalist Witch Novellas – by D.B. Jackson

The Witch’s Storm – GoodreadsReview

The Cloud Prison – GoodreadsReview

The Adams Gambit – Goodreads

$3/each ebooks / ~100 pg/each

I may’ve only gotten through two of the trilogy this year, but I’ve no doubt that as long as the third continues in the same vein that it’ll make it on this list as well. All in all, the Loyalist Witch was an amazing return to the world of Ethan Kaille, albeit to find a very different thieftaker than we’d seen in years past. Ethan has changed—and Boston has changed right along with it. If you’re returning fans of Thieftaker, these are a must-read, but welcome newcomers to the series as well. While originally released as a trilogy of novellas, the entire set is now available in a complete volume, as you can see HERE.

#3

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells

GoodreadsReview

$12 ebook / 176 pg

2021 marked a return to the world of Murderbot, albeit one before the release of the full-length novel, Network Effect. It was great getting back in the groove with our old pal Murderbot and their trust issues and social anxiety, something I’d quite like to see more of in the future. But I’d also like to see where they go from here, and how they evolve as a… well… “person”.

#2

One Day All This Will Be Yours – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

GoodreadsReview

$10 ebook / 192 pg

This is starting to feel like a yearly thing, where I choose one of Tchaikovsky’s novellas for my ‘Favorites’ list. And so I guess 2021 is no different, for it features a pair of his novellas, including one that has been met with so much critical success in Elder Race—and this little one published back in March. Elder Race did not make this list (mostly because I didn’t read it), but there was no worry in Tchaikovsky missing out altogether, as this quaint little time traveling story has not one, but THREE Jack the Rippers.

#1

City of Songs – by Anthony Ryan

GoodreadsReview

$5 ebook / 160 pg

The third issue in the Seven Swords series, and Anthony Ryan has produced his best novella yet. Exiled King Guyime and his allies come to the fabled City of Songs seeking a missing child, an additional five demon blades, and redemption. By this point in the series, the world-building has started to flesh out a bit, and has left me with the need to see and explore more of this world of wonders that the author has built. I’ve very little negative to say about the series thus far which—after reading several of Ryan’s other novellas set elsewhere—is about the highest praise I can give. So do yourself a favor and pick this one up (or, if you haven’t read the first, maybe start here with my review of it: A Pilgrimage of Swords).

Well, that’s the list, hope you enjoyed it! I must say that it was only after finishing up that I looked up the price on many of these and—daaaamn. Remember when all novellas were $1-5? Tor.com has really raised the price, haven’t they? All the more reason for me to recommend the City of Songs, as it’s one of the three with a sane price tag (for the length).

Remote Control – by Nnedi Okorafor (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; January 19, 2021

156 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.4 / 5 ✪

For the first five years of her life, Fatima was a sickly, if normal child. Then came the day all that changed.

Sitting in the branches of her family’s shea tree, she watched the sky fall. A meteor shower, one that lit the sky up with a greenish glow. One of these meteors—a “seed”, about the size of a small bird’s egg—happened to fall directly before her tree. When Fatima picked it up, the seed suffused her with it green glow. She put the seed in a wee box she kept in her room, and told it her secrets. And for a time, all was well.

A year later, a man came and took the seed, paying her father a healthy amount for it. Fatima was heartbroken at first, but her father bought her a dress and eventually the heartache faded—the way only can it, in youth.

That is, until the day Fatima forgot her name. The day Death came to call. For when she is struck by a car, the green glow rushes forth to protect her—killing everyone around. Everyone.

Alone and devastated, the young girl searches for answers. Answers only the seed can provide. But it’s gone—taken by the man with the gold shoes and the mysterious LifeGen corporation. And yet… she knows where it is. She can feel it at the edges of her vision, the pulsing green glow, telling her where the seed is. So she sets out to find it, taking only scant possessions from her house—including a new name: taken from the carvings of Sankofa birds her brother once made.

And so Sankofa wanders Ghana in pursuit of the seed. And where she goes, Death comes with her. Thus her legend is born, and her tidings infamous.

“What is wrong with you?” she asked.

“As if you don’t know,” he said over his shoulder. “The Adopted Daughter of Death comes and asks what is trying to kill me. Oh the irony.”

Remote Control is a coming-of-age story, blending science fiction and mystery with the Guinean (West African) culture that permeates it. For example “Sankofa” is a word in Twi that means “to seek” or “to return and fetch”. The corresponding Sankofa bird isn’t a kind of bird at all but instead a symbolic representation of this, an ideal that has evolved over the years to convey the bringing of what is good from the past into the present in order to make some positive contribution. This is used in Remote Control in order to tell a story that focuses on family, feeling, and life.

An illustrated sankofa bird turned around, picking an egg off its back.

Instead of a straightforward A to B plot, the story wanders a bit, moseying around the Ghanian countryside as Sankofa searches not just for the seed, but for meaning as well. While at first I was a bit perplexed by the format, I soon came to love the way the story of Sankofa is told. I laughed, I teared up, and I experienced the full emotional journey I normal expect from a good full-length novel. For although Remote Control is short, it left me feeling anything but disappointed. It tells a complete, intriguing, heart-achingly beautiful story—one I’ll not soon forget.

The only issue I had was with LifeGen. The mysterious, shadow-corporation to is clearly the man behind the man. But what the corporation is, and what it represents? It’s… not really clear. Hell, I’m still not even sure what LifeGen represents. It’s mostly just confusing, and a mystery whose answer remains unfulfilled even after the story ends. I mean, it’s a bit maddening, as the lone frustratingly vague puzzle in an otherwise perfect story.

Oh, and I love the fox, Movenpick. A mostly silent companion for Sankofa, he provided enough reassurance when there was otherwise none, and added more to the story than I would’ve thought a mostly-absent red fox could.

TL;DR

Remote Control details the coming-of-age tale of a girl alone in the world, a girl who’s blessed under the shadow of Death. Her thoughtful, meandering journey around a near-future Ghana provides insights upon life, mysteries worth solving, and way more emotions than I would’ve expected out of a novella. I honestly loved this story, but for one annoying facet—one that continues to confound me with its inclusion. For it’s a tale that leaves a lasting impression; a good one, at least for me. While it took me a couple chapters to fall in love with Remote Control, fall for it I did—a bit surprising considering how blasé I felt Binti was. Thoroughly recommended, especially for Scifi Month or as a bridge between two lengthier, unrelated works.

Note: All that said, I wouldn’t be willing to pay $11 for it (as that’s the current ridiculous ebook price). I mean, it’s $13 for a hardcover that might look and feel and read quite nice, but that’s kinda steep for a novella of its length. Still… it’s a damn good read. Get Remote Control on sale, or from your public library—that’s what I did.

Hard Reboot – by Django Wexler (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 25, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Warning: May contain minor spoilers

When Scholar Zychtykas “Kas” Three comes to Old Earth, all she expects to find is an irradiated trash heap overrun by militant malware and practically unlivable. After all, Old Earth is part monument, mausoleum, and trash heap. Of course, Kas had just risked everything to come here, to study the remnants of old tech, to find something that will make her career.

What she finds instead is Zhi Zero, who quickly suckers her into a bet on a warbot fight. A bet fronted by the credit of the Sentinel Scholarium, based on money that Kas doesn’t have. But Zhi doesn’t know that—or care, really—after all, every offworlder is loaded, so a lost bet will just be another inconvenience to the scholar. To Zhi however, it’ll be a lifeline. All she has to do is win.

Something she fails to do. Now, indebted and hunted, Zhi goes underground to the remnants of her greatest secret—a 3rd Empire warbot, one that she’s worked for years to restore with little success. This is where Kas finds her—desperate herself to get out of the obligation of their bet. But Zhi doesn’t have the money, and only has the most desperate of plans to come up with it. Fortunately for her, Kas is already in too deep—and desperate enough to dig herself deeper in order to escape. This new plan involves cunning, coding, the 3rd Empire warbot, and a whole bunch more money neither woman has.

Featuring gundam battles, cyberpunk enhancements, and a dystopian future, Hard Reboot is exactly the kinda read I’m into. I really enjoyed the starting descriptions of Old Earth from an Offworlder, one whose world was prosperous and advanced—it reminded me of Cowboy Bebop where Earth is a decaying ruin: broken, flooded, and constantly bombarded by meteorites. Indeed, the irradiated Earth seems quite like this: a relic that no one quite knows what to do with, so they steer clear of it except to visit on vacations, once, and never come again.

The story doesn’t take much to get into either. It’s quite a simple setup, really: an offworlder is scammed out of her life savings by an equally desperate misfit and they have to team up to win the day. But while it works initially, the plot frays a bit when the two are thrown together. It keeps going from there, down the predictable linear path to a predictable conclusion. While there are a few twists and turns along the way, none of it seemed terribly inventive. As such, while the Kas-Zhi pairing started out well, after we cross the halfway point their interactions get a bit forced—which is my exact description of the romance. In addition to feeling like an afterthought, t’s like the “I’m a woman that’s into women and you’re a woman that’s into women, so we should be into each other” is any different from any heterosexual relationship that hasn’t started just because two random people are forced to spend time together. Compatibility and attraction aside, I’m not saying it’s an impossible love. It just seems a bit like a “first love” that gets hot and heavy but spirals out of control quickly …while also involving giant robots. I’d definitely read that sequel, if Wexler ever gets around to it.

TL;DR

Hard Reboot is the story of battling gundams, ragtag romantics, and gritty cyberpunk thrills that you’ve always wanted—only in a sample size too small to fully enjoy. Set on an irradiated, dystopian Earth, it tells the story of two star-crossed lovers brought together by scams, sex, and giant fighting robots. The setting is a delight and something that I very much hope the author revisits later. The text hits the ground running, as we barely get out of the gate before the story takes off. But while it starts off quite well, the latter half is bogged down by an overly simplistic plot and an afterthought romance. While the story was entertaining, the ending was just okay. So… I’m a bit torn. I liked Hard Reboot, and I’d probably recommend it, but I’m not sure we’ll ever get the gundam-fight-breakup sequel that I’m convinced takes place after this book ends. Which is just a shame.

PS- If you don’t know what “gundams” are, please watch more anime. Thank you!