Abandoned – by W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #2

Science Fiction

DAW Books; November 27, 2018

436 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Donovan #1—Outpost.

Welcome to Donovan.

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has been on fragile terms with Port Authority since she decided to remain planetside, rather than inverting on the Turalon. Rather than join the settlement and perpetually butt heads with the council, Aguila has chosen to carve out a mine in the wilds—one the wilderness is slowly but surely reclaiming. The trees take a more active approach on Donovan, often rootching forwards, covering miles in a single day. To make matters worse, a murderer is hanging out in Aguila’s camp, one pushing Dan Wirth’s agenda. As if Donovan wasn’t enough.

Mark Talbot is a dead man walking. Marooned in the middle of the bush, he’s alive at all solely because of his armor, which thus far has survived every threat Donovan has thrown at him, from quetzals, to nightmares, to death-fliers. But what it can’t do is feed him, or—something that’s his larger issue—keep a charge. The battery packs were tested and maintained for combat; somewhere around 1000 hours. So far Talbot’s has seen twice that, and the cells are slowly depleting. So when he sees his first sign of human habitation, Talbot has no choice but to throw himself on their mercy. What he’s confronted with, however, are three scientists with a flock of children—and the quetzal that one of them has bonded.

Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it. A marine with a head for taking orders but not giving them, she has been suddenly thrust into command, a position that sees her instability and lust for violence take center stage. In Port Authority she sees everything that’s the problem with Donovan, especially one Talina Perez. And Spiro isn’t great at talking through her problems.

Talina Perez has made mistakes. In this case it’s the woman whose husband she killed during her time as the supervisor’s assassin. A mistake she’s desperate to atone for. But she’ll have to do far more than that if she wants to survive what Donovan has in store.

For when Spiro makes a mistake that might just threaten to kill them all, Perez will gamble everything on an outcast, an alien, and an infection in her TriNA. As sides are chosen and tensions run high it becomes very clear that the two sides can’t live together. But with Donovan mounting an offensive, neither might survive at all.

On Donovan, only humans are more terrifying than the wildlife.

“At this rate, how long before the forest reclaims the whole farm and smelter?” Kalico asked woodenly.

“Maybe a couple months?” Ghosh hazarded. “But that’s just a guess. I’m not a biological science kind of guy.”

“Remember how you laid out a line of that toxic smelter waste?” Ituri gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say except this is Donovan. The trees never even hesitated. Radioactive or not, they just rootched their way across.”

“Rootched?”

“That’s what we’ve been calling it. Sort of a mix between roots and ruts and wiggling through the ground.”

A great return trip to Donovan, Abandoned tells an excellent followup story to the science fiction debut, Outpost. Turalon has departed. The planet is once again on its own. It’s up to the people to band together—us against them—and survive all the planet has to throw at them.

Only, people are, well, people. They don’t always get along. Honestly, I feel like this is an understatement. Just look at the history of humanity: I don’t see why it should be any different on an alien world.

And neither, it appears, does W. Michael Gear. Humans are the most terrifying part of Donovan, though the planet tries hard to give them some competition. A conspiracy of quetzals, on a molecular level. A horde of death-fliers. Trees that eat people, spaceships, and, apparently, toxic waste. And yet even in the face of all that, the humans continue to squabble and kill one another.

The problem, such that it is, is Dan Wirth. The best villain you love to hate. And yet NOT the villain of Abandoned. I guess the author thought it was too early in the series to put a bullet in the bastard’s head. A shame, that.

Anyway, instead of Wirth, we’re given Spiro, who is a bit one-sided as villains go. Or indeed, as people. Now, I’m not saying Spiro is poorly written, as I’ve met a number of marines I feel could encapsulate her perfectly. Suited to violence, good at taking orders, but little else. And no, this is not me saying that all marines are psychos—just some of them. Some very, very few of them. The point is that Spiro, while being a bit boring as a villain, isn’t a bust as a character. Nor is she poorly written. Just I think we could’ve done better.

Spiro aside, I flew through this book! I loved the addition of Talbot (especially given his circumstances), the return of Talina and Trish and Kalico and others. I binged the final 250 pages in a night, and had to resist going immediately to the next one as it was 6am and I needed to sleep. But I wanted to go back to Donovan. And that’s what I’d recommend you doing; don’t just GO to Donovan, go back, time after time. I sure hope this series continues to deliver like I expect it to!

Ymir – by Rich Larson (Review)

Standalone

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

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

A dark, otherworldly retelling of Beowulf takes place on a dystopian ice-world where the company owns and tells all. A tale of two brothers separated by time, space, and bad blood. Yorick hunts monsters—specifically the eyeless grey terror known as the grendel, that lurk beneath the earth on many company worlds. He left home early, after a spat with his brother that cost him his jaw.

And now he’s back in the one place he hoped never to be again: the ice-world Ymir.

Thello is a mystery. In Yorick’s mind, his homecoming would coincide with his brother’s apology—that or a fight to the death—but upon landing Yorick finds neither. In fact, he hasn’t seen Thello at all, instead greeted by a company man Dam Gausta, his former mentor, the woman who ushered him into the company; and a hulking red clanswoman, Fen, who clearly wants to gut him at first sight. At first Yorick thinks that she must know him—but no, he’s been gone decades, and the Butcher that Cooked the Cradle must be assumed to be well and truly dead by now.

Without his brother, there is only the hunt that matters now.

But this grendel is different than the mindless killing-machines Yorick has dispatched in the past. Beneath that cold, clammy skin there is definitely a very alien mind at work, but there is also something disturbingly human to it as well, something Yorick recognizes and knows all too well.

Thello.

Written in the style of Takeshi Kovacs, Ymir takes a fast-paced, minimalist story designs of Richard K. Morgan and applies them to a Beowulf inspired tale, complete with nordic themes and terrifying grendels. A dark, gritty tale takes place on both sides of the ice of Ymir, even plunging deep underground in pitch-black tunnels where only those desperate or alien live.

The pacing itself is strange, but it is what the story makes it. It’s the way the story is told; in glimpses—with chapters so short we might as well be visiting the story as opposed to spending a book’s length with it. We jump from action to action, spending just enough time to progress the plot—but no more.

While I loved the dark, gritty feel of the ice-world Ymir, there was never enough of it to go around. When you’re only spending one to five pages in the same place, it’s hard to get a real sense of worth from it. Thus, instead of a full-body immersion, this was like a bath taken in quick dips, where you get a shock of cold that eventually builds up into a deep freeze, but only after a long period. It was an interesting way to tell a story—and not one I entirely enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative between the two brothers, though it didn’t last as long as I’d’ve expected, coming to a cliffhanger well before the close that felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a mystery by the time it was resolved at the end.

TL;DR

While there was more than enough to like about Ymir, very little about the tale wowed me. It did prove a great read and a good story besides, as well as an interesting and unique retelling/tale based heavily on the epic Beowulf. But there was just too little there: too little time spent in any one place; too little depth on any of the supporting characters; too little backstory on the company, the grendels, Ymir itself, anything of the world to make it feel real. Overall, while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw from Ymir, I’d’ve liked to have seen more of… pretty much all of it. For what is a tale told in glimpses than no tale at all?

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!

Upgrade – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Thriller

Ballantine Books; July 12, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

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8 / 10 ✪

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

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

And instead of saving billions, the project killed millions.

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

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

Until his past catches up with him.

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

And Logan begins to notice a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

Except, no. It isn’t.

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

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

TL;DR

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

Annex – by Rich Larson (Review)

The Violet Wars #1

Scifi, Dystopian, Aliens

Orbit Books; July 24, 2018

317 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Peter Pan meets Independence Day in Annex, where aliens isolate a small city and attach clamps to the necks of all adults over the age of 16, essentially turning them into zombies—called “wasters” by the Lost Boys that still run the streets. But few of these waifs remain free. The rest of the children have been rounded up and collected into warehouses, where they are implanted with parasites and kept drugged, waiting for whatever nefarious plan the new overlords have in mind.

When Bo escapes from the warehouses, he wants nothing more than to reunite with his sister. Instead, he finds the Lost Boys—or rather they find him.

Violet—a transgender girl—is our main link to the group, led by influential Wyatt and his followers. Unlike Bo, Violet isn’t disappointed the world ended. In fact, she feels liberated. The world ending changed her life—but for the better. And she’s never going back. In this new world she does what she wants, when she wants, as the person who she wants to be. And yet her struggle isn’t complete. There’s still something for Violet out there—and her path to it leads through Bo.

And so these two and the Lost Boys must confront the apocalypse before it’s too late, and before the aliens complete whatever it is they’re up to.

So what do I have to say about the aliens, about the characters, about the world? Not much, to be honest. Other than Violet and Bo they’re pretty much a wash. Wyatt and Bree are the only other characters of note, and both of them are chaotic—though in different ways. Though as the two leads define sooo much of the story, essentially they’re everything important about it. Which is both good and bad. On one hand it’s disappointing that the characters suffer so much of a drop-off from primary to secondary, but on the other, at least the important characters have their shit together. The world and the lore are both equally disappointing. Neither do we know or discover much about throughout the entire story.

Luckily the story itself was entertaining. A no-nonsense plot about alien invaders and the fate of the world, science and action, atmospheric tension and subtle horror—I mean, there’s not a whole lot to complain about. Or analyze. Or… write more words for.

There are a few holes in the world-building that does exist: such as the electricity being out for months though the characters constantly seem to forget it and expect something different. And I really hate the: “it was just a few days, but felt like a lifetime ago”. It’s overused and ridiculous.

TL;DR

Annex is an entertaining read, if a bit of a far-fetched one. Full of action and mystery, deep lead characters, an engaging plot and interesting story—the book is one that certainly starts out on the right foot. But a flawed premise, one-sided secondary characters, and more than a few missteps along the way slow it up. Annex is definitely an example of world-building in a bubble, as the known-world is very much trapped in a bubble. While this can heighten the suspense, it also limits the scope and weight of the story. And as little is ever revealed about the world outside our little bubble of reality, the mystery and suspense can only deliver for so long. When the end comes, it brings with it a sense of fulfillment of the plot and character arcs, but little of the fate of the world itself. All because the world never much seemed in danger—only a piece of it did. All in all, I’d definitely say that the good outweighs the bad and recommend this for anyone who’s a fan of dystopian or young adult, alien invasions or science fiction—particularly where deep issues exceed particularly deep scientific lore or world-building.

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 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.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6 / 10 ✪

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

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

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.