To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

The Seven Swords #4

Epic, High Fantasy

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2022

147 pages (hardcover)

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9 / 10 ✪

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

Please beware minor spoilers for the Seven Swords Books #1-3!

Guyime, once named “The Ravager”, once famed king of the Northern Realms, carries on his search for the Seven Swords—for by uniting them as one he hopes to free himself from their curse, and save Seeker’s daughter while doing so.

Advised to aid the cause of a lovesick knight, the party ventures to Blackfyre Keep, a cursed ruin amidst the Northlands, where war and famine rage, and something even more dangerous lurks. This knight has been tasked with taking and holding the cursed keep for a year to win the hand of his lady love—a task that is thoroughly unfeasible even with the involvement of three of the demon blades.

But Guyime doesn’t plan on sticking around.

Only in finding and mastering the fourth sword can his quest continue, and he has a very strong suspicion that the blade he seeks is somewhere in the depths of Blackfyre Keep. They’ll just have to live long enough to claim it.

Cursed I am, but it was always a useful curse.

So, by Book #4 we pretty much know what we’re going to get from this series. There’ll be a demon-cursed sword, some amazing locale to house it—like a hidden tomb, a cursed keep, a stratified city, a god’s chamber—someone to wield it, and a competition to claim it. If you were expecting something different—well, you’re out of luck.

What you see is what you get. Though not everyone might survive to see it.

There’s something quite nice about that, if I’m honest. I don’t have to worry overly about my favorite characters dying, I don’t have to worry about catching every aspect of the plot, I can just sit back and take it all in. Because I absolutely adore the world of the Seven Swords, and would read pretty much any story set in it. With such a simple and straightforward plot that’s basically episodic by now, it frees up Anthony Ryan to dream up new and more fantastical elements of his world than ever before. If you’ve accompanied me to Book #4 then you’ll know what I mean.

So, we have an episodic book and the expectation of another sword by the end of it. What’s next?

I’d argue the adventure itself takes priority. And the adventure here is a good one. It’s not perfect, by any means (one can only bottle lightning so many times, after all), but it’s another entertaining episode, where our heroes journey to a cursed keep and confront an ancient evil. Again, there’s some travel time in the beginning, so we get yet another glimpse at the incredible world the author has dreamt up. There is mystery, there is tension, there are military and horror and supernatural elements threading through a wonderful fantasy tale.

As with the other Seven Swords installments, Blackfyre Keep is light on details (the review copy I received was only 147 pages), which—while you’d expect that from a novella—I found just a bit more shallow than the others in sequence. The title “To Blackfyre Keep” is telling, as that’s the destination. In the other installments our party spent time searching upon the way, but here (apart for a single brief exception) we head straight to the keep before the story really begins.

TL;DR

If you’ve arrived at this point in the Seven Swords, you should know how this works. A place, an enemy, a sword to claim. A challenge in claiming it. It’s pretty much that simple. While episodic, it’s another investing adventure with an entertaining story and interesting characters. Though the world doesn’t feel as interactive as in past installments, the world around remains as detailed and immersive as before, with wondrous locations and terrifying scenes. Not much more I can say about this. If you’ve reached this point of the series, you’re sure to enjoy this one. If you haven’t—I guess you won’t be reading it anyway. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to pick up the series—I’d say yes, but I guess you could always just wait it out and binge them all at once. Got another 2-4 years wait, in that case. Easier to just start now, eh?

Note: The Subterranean Press version is doubtless a work of art in itself, but the entry point is $40, which, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t pay for a novella, regardless of how good it is. Still though, if you fancy a piece of history, might I suggest the Lettered Edition? Preorders are up for this $300 book. Otherwise, perhaps the ebook version? It usually retails for $3-5.

Perfect Shadow – by Brent Weeks (Review)

Night Angel #0.5

Fantasy, Novella

Orbit; November 7, 2017

131 pages (hardcover)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

Gaelan Starfire is a farmer, a husband, a father—and an immortal, a man who’s seen countless lifetimes, and is peerless in the arts of war. In past lifetimes he’s been a leader of men, a war hero, a villain, a rebel, a tyrant.

In this life he is no one.

Was. Was no one.

When his wife and daughter are killed, Gaelan takes an assignment assassinating assassins for the beautiful crimelord Gwinvere Kirena, in order to escape. But it turns out that this escape may cost him more than he bargained for.

Yet, it may also provide Gaelan with the answers he desperately seeks.

This was to be my first kill for hire. It’s good to start with the impossible. Make a name for myself. Enter with a splash.

A bit light on details, but a lot more depth than I’d expect out of the common backstory novella—no wonder it turned out longer than the author had planned. The tale of Gaelan Starfire includes twists and turns, ups and downs, but only the one lifetime (though there are glimpses of more beyond). If you liked the Night Angel trilogy—or even didn’t; I was on the fence, personally, and only ended up reading Book #1—this is a nice piece of lore to pick up, as it explains so much that is just taken for granted in Way of the Shadows.

I haven’t read a book in the series in several years, but had no trouble getting immersed in the world. In fact, even after finishing Perfect Shadow (which took me about a day), I still only remember glimpses of Book #1: the world, the ending, and… that’s about it. The point is that this novella can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series, though if you have read some of it, this adds a bit more depth to your understanding.

There’s also a short story included: I, Nightangel—which fills in… not much, honestly. I found it a bit worthless and ended up skimming it. So, the novella itself I’d rate at 8/10 ✪—while the short story maybe 4ish. Luckily, the main event is the novella itself, so I only ended up docking half a star for this, as the reason you buy the novella is for the, you know, novella.

TL;DR

If you’ve read any of the Night Angel trilogy, or are curious to do so, I’d definitely recommend Perfect Shadow. It’s a good judge of whether or not the trilogy would be right for you. I’m not certain that the short story is included in the ebook version—according to the Amazon page, it is, but the hardcover edition claims it isn’t supposed to be.

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

Monk & Robot #2

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; July 12, 2022

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

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7.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

Tea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mirror Mended – by Alix E. Harrow (Review)

Fractured Fables #2

Fantasy, Retelling

Tor.com; June 14, 2022
Macmillan Audio; June 14, 2022

176 pages (ebook)
3hr 48m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

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

• Review of A Spindle Splintered •

Zinnia Grey—professional fairy-taler and knight in shining armor—has a problem. The problem is not that there aren’t enough princesses to rescue, but too many. Once you’ve made out with 20 princesses, offed 40 evil stepmothers, or gotten drunk with two or three huntsmen and dwarves, everything just starts to run together. So much so that Zinnia is beginning to wish some of the princesses might take initiative and solve their own problems.

The next mirror Zinnia looks in has a face looking right back at her.

Only this face isn’t the young, naïve visage of a princess, but a more mature evil staring back. The more mature, ATTRACTIVE, GORGEOUS, face of evil. But this evil queen isn’t looking to stop Zinnia, she’s after her help. Because she’s learned how her story ends and wants to escape it before the inevitable comes to pass. But should Zinnia decide to help her, the lines of good and evil may blur, and narratives may become irrevocably damaged. Plus, she might just fall in love.

Okay, so it’s $11 for the ebook, or $7.30 for the audiobook version. Please tell me how that makes sense. Normally, I’d just say that the ebook is too expensive and leave it at that. But I’m legitimately confused. I understand that recorded books are more expensive because the author, the narrator, and the publisher all need their cut instead of just the two—but how does it work the other way around?

Anyway, the story. The story is good. I even enjoyed it more than the first one.

See, Zinnia is on a princess-rescuing-bender. It’s been too much, too fast, too long. She has a problem, and the path between right and wrong has begun to blur a little. In the beginning, there’s no way that she’d have considered doing this, but after dozens of weeping princesses and blushing brides she is just looking for a bit of backbone. Or an attractive evil queen that shows some spine (and maybe a hint of cleavage).

No problem with the characters or romance this time around—even I found it a bit refreshing. It did take me a bit to get into, and experienced a bit of a lag in the middle (which was disconcerting since it’s only three hours), though that could’ve boiled down to what I had going on versus how well the narrative was selling itself. So am I really going to criticize this for failing to blow me away? Apparently so, but not much.

The simple fact is that there’s a really good story here, or retelling, at and above the level of what we were previously presented. It’s certainly a good read—or listen, if that’s what you’re into. I quite enjoyed the audio version, as once again Amy Landon brings Zinnia Grey to life in a way I failed to experience from just the text. I’d whole-heartedly recommend A Mirror Mended, particularly as an audiobook—and not just because it’s less expensive.

Now, will there be another, or is this the last we’ve seen of Zinnia Grey? Obviously I can’t get too much into this because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that the conclusion is adequately open-ended to allow for more adventures, but the ending itself was magical enough in its own right to provide the series a proper ending. So… I dunno? Maybe? Either way it was a good ending, one that you’re sure to love whether or not it’s the end of the line for Zinnia.

The City Inside – by Samit Basu (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Dystopian

Tor.com; June 7, 2022

256 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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

“I always know where you are, “ Rohit says. “I’ve always known, ever since you left. We’re family. I assumed you would come to me when you were ready. But you’ve never claimed your blood was thicker than it is. The fault is mine.”
“You’re being even weirder than usual,” Rudra says. “What do you want?”
“Calm down and watch your tone. We are the city’s elite in a place of power, where we may speak freely, but remember there are always eyes on us.”

The City Inside provides a look into a tech-rich, restrictive, dystopian India that very well could come to pass. Inspired by recent events, the story takes place in the not-so-distant future. At the moment, the government is focused on turning the country from a secular to a Hindu state, valuing some citizens over others, while even evicting other minorities—particularly Muslims—from the country. By the time our story starts, the mass exodus has already ended. The popular movement supporting secularism has failed, and dissent is no longer tolerated by the government. There is a migrant crisis; religious discrimination, racism, bigotry, and caste hierarchy are rampant. Freedom is no longer free. The government keeps a close eye on its citizens, particularly those that rise above the rest. And yet life goes on.

Joey is a reality controller. She acts as the manager of Indi, up and coming Idol and reality star. While the two have a complicated past, they work together quite well, to the point that Indi is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular online celebrities, primed for a jump to the country’s main stage. While his feeds and livestreams focus on the fast lifestyle of the rich and famous—popular feuds, fast cars, sex with models and actresses and royalty, everything and more within the grasp of India’s elite—the world of politics and power is only a step away. Indeed, Indi is at the height of his power: millions of fans follow his feeds daily, hourly; he can’t appear in public without causing riots; everything he says or does is dissected, obsessed over, eaten up. Thus Joey has her hands full. But while she’s busy running Indi’s life, she still hasn’t figured out what she wants for her own.

Rudra is a recluse. Youngest son of one of the most powerful family’s in India, he returns home following the death of his father only to get stuck once more in his family’s orbit—a place he’d rather die than remain. Rescued by Joey, he goes to work for Indi, but quickly gets more than he bargained for, immediately becoming embroiled in the Idol’s reality lifestyle. But as both he and Joey are confronted with plots and conspiracies, the two are left with few options. Each must choose their own road—whatever it may be.

No matter who’s in power, no matter who needs land or blood, no matter which country’s secretly running ours, there’s one thing all sides agree on—the children of the rich must be protected.

Before starting this, I only had an inkling of what was going on behind India’s borders. The current administration—led by Narendra Modi—is pushing hard for the country to relinquish secularism (religious freedom) and become a Hindu state. As such they are attempting to depopulate the country of religious minorities (particularly Muslims) through a variety of means—most recently, by stripping their citizenship and deporting them. The book itself proved just the tip of the iceberg for me as I fell down the rabbit hole. There’s so much more I could tell you about the situation—but I won’t. Partly because it’s not really applicable to the text; partly because since I’m watching it from without, I may not have the most unbiased view. But should you read the book and find the dystopian society interesting, I’d recommend checking it out. Because—for a dystopian—it’s not much of a leap.

The story itself was, well… a bit of a mixed bag.

I’m pretty sure the whole main story with Indi is an allegory for something, though I couldn’t tell you what it is. There were several clues, though I won’t spill them here. Without reading anything into it however, the main story was worth the price of admission. The interactions between the leads (Joey and Rudra), and their subsequent relationships to the rest of the cast were quite well done, so much so that I’d hesitate to name a book twice the length of this that has deeper or more complex characters. And that’s really saying something.

It’s a shame then, that the rest of it is so riddled with issues.

All in all, this is a tale about nationalism. Except it isn’t. It’s a story about love. No, no, that’s not it either. It’s a warning for the future? Maybe, but not entirely. I mean, it’s more about nationalism. Or is it sexism? From the outset, I had trouble making out what this was actually about. I mean, it’s about many, many things, but when it boils right down to it… I’m not sure what several of those are. And that’s because while the City Inside sets out to tackle a whole bunch of issues and themes, I’m not convinced it does any of these too well. At least, upon finishing the story—in spite of it’s many, many endings—I didn’t feel very much resolution. To any of the storylines. The dystopian “the government is watching you” seemed like a big theme at first, only to vanish for most of the story. The rise of nationalism, anti-secularism, and the fight for the future fade in and out, but always seems to turn up at the dramatic bits. The characters’ personal threads are just as varied. Though, to be honest, no one really gets a concrete ending. Joey gets kind of a vaguely satisfying conclusion, while Rudra (the other main lead) has no resolution whatsoever. Just don’t expect any of the characters to have any satisfying settlement come the end, and you’ll be okay (yes, I know how that sounds—and yes, that’s definitely sarcasm).

That being said, though the ending definitely soured me on it, I really did enjoy the journey. Sure, it was a twisting, turning, often confusing journey—one where I never really knew what to expect and was never quite certain about what the author was talking about (this is the kind of story that just screamed “packed with hidden meaning, subtlety, and undercurrent)—but it was quite immersive at the same time. The technical aspect of it suffered some lag from the language, as the author often spammed the term ‘Flow’—even going so far as to use several different iterations of the term in each’s definition. In back-to-back sentences I counted as many as six, which is objectively too many made up words.

And still, this gripped me. It was not an easy read, but one I kept coming back to, without so much as a thought of DNFing it. I know that so far I’ve pretty much just complained about it, only offering “but I promise it’s really quite good”, but that’s how I feel about it. There are some problems, yes. Okay, a LOT of problems, but somewhere within is a good story. A story of a lost son and a voracious daughter. The story of two very different people who are at the same time very much alike. A story of hope, disappointment, life, love, happiness, loss, politics, acceptance—all tied together with an open-ended bow.

All this aside, this 250ish pager is $15 for an ebook. That’s quite steep, especially for all that I had to say…

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – by P. Djèlí Clark (Review)

Dead Djinn Universe #0.3

Steampunk, Fantasy, Novella

Tor.com; February 19, 2019

96 pages (ebook)
3hr 22m (audiobook)

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7 / 10 ✪

Cairo, 1912

The case seemed simple enough at first: simply handling the exorcism of a possessed tram car. Only… why would anything want to possess a tram car? Agent Hamed Nasr can’t remember such a thing ever happening before. Yet upon visiting the scene, he cannot argue with the facts. The tram car is certainly possessed.

So he and his new partner Onsi Youssef set out to clear up the whole mess. Though of course it’s never that simple.

For while Cairo is the center of the civilized world, the society is not as placid as one might believe. A burgeoning suffrage movement led by the city’s women; the idea that machines are sentient beings held as slaves; secret societies worshipping forgotten gods—magic and society have coexisted til now due to necessity, but any one of these issues threatens to tear the city apart. All of them at once… Hamed and Onsi need to exorcise this entity as quickly as possible, or else.

This was my first peek at P. Djèlí Clark—and it was pretty good. Interesting, entertaining. Not too heavy, not too light. The detective angle works (mostly), until it doesn’t. It begins well, but eventually feels like its bitten off more than it can chew. So when it wraps up, it feels very sudden. And then it’s over. And… doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

The best thing about a good novella is that it can make you want to explore the entire world to the fullest. Just a glimpse is often enough to make me go and binge the entire series. While the Haunting of Tram Car 015 was interesting and entertaining, it didn’t leave me needing more. I’m not saying that it instantly forgettable, nor did it leave a bad aftertaste, just… it doesn’t leave much of an impression. Not a lasting one, at least. It was a good read, and I remember that it was a decently good read—just no specifics. Nothing that I especially liked or disliked. It was just a little… thin, like someone stuck up some cardboard cutouts to set the scene and called it a day. Again, it’s quite a good read—so long as you don’t dig too deep.

For a one hundred page novella, this is kinda steep. Which fits the Tor.com model, I guess. Rather than complain about it (again), I’ll just note that it’s $8 for an ebook / $10 for an audiobook and (in my opinion) probably not good enough to warrant the cost. So, find this on sale, from the library, or some streaming service. Heck, if you’re a fan of the series you might not care about the cost at all. Generally I’d recommend it, but not at full price.

The Tindalos Asset – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #3

Horror, Novella, Scifi

Tor.com; October 13, 2020

176 pages (ebook)
4hr 35m (audiobook)

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3.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for… actually, amazingly I don’t think there are any spoilers for the previous books in the series. Take from that what you will.

The Signalman reprises his role from Agents of Dreamland. He’s joined by a fresh-faced partner. Ellison Nicodemo also returns in what just may be her swan song. But I suppose the same could be said of mankind.

A series of paranormal events plagues the Earth, portent of the looming apocalypse. Squid are born to human mothers. Planes fill with water while in flight. Whales are discovered beached thousands of miles inland.

The time has come for this motley team to face the end of the world.

…I think. It’s kinda hard to tell.

The Tindalos Asset gets excellent ratings and reviews on Goodreads, but I think I know why. Anyone that made it through Black Helicopters and was excited to continue the series is bound to love the Book #3 more. I mean, even I loved the Tindalos Asset waaay more than the one that came before it. Though that’s not to say it’s any good. I’m the kind of person that made it through Black Helicopters and thought “well, #3 can’t possibly be any worse”—which isn’t really the best reason to continue a series, I know.

The Tindalos Asset is like Fringe meets… whatever Book #2 was about. I’d say it’s a motley start to a new series, but unfortunately it’s the final one. So, as the conclusion to a series, well, it sucks. Bonus points for the Fringe connection though. I know what happened at the end. It just didn’t make any sense why or how.

There’s a romance, kinda. But it doesn’t make any more sense than anything else in this series. I mean, weren’t there aliens at some point? What happened to them? They’re… really not in this installment. There are hints, yes—but nothing concrete; nothing even remotely approaching clear. Of the romance however: no hints. There’s some sex between the Signalman and his partner, but it’s more raw, less romantic. Does little more than peg him as human—something the other entries just left as a open question. As a romance it’s really lacking, but the only thing I felt indicative of the term. That said, this isn’t who the romance is really between (the Signalman and his partner, I mean), so I don’t know what to tell you. I really hope that this isn’t how the author thinks people flirt.

So, do I recommend this? Nope. I mean, it’s better than Black Helicopters, but that’s a really low bar. The ending was an adequate conclusion to the series, but I’ve no idea how we got to that point, and I read the damned things. But again, it’s better than what directly preceded it. There’s a (mostly) coherent plot. It actually connects to events and characters from Agents of Dreamland. There’s actually some character development, which was a complete surprise. Some of it even makes sense. But yeah, there is no lasting sense of completion or achievement. Sad to say, but the best part of this book—no, this entire series—is likely the end. When it ended.

By the way, did I mention this is $8 for an ebook? Totally not worth it.

Black Helicopters – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #2

Horror, Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 1, 2018

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

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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.