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!

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.

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.