The Mandalorian Armor

August 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armor The Mandalorian Armor by K.W. Jeter

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K.W. Jeter is supposed to be this wunderkind author, hailed by Philip K. Dick and other authors, so I had high expectations for this book. I mean, this was the guy who had been tagged to write the authorized sequels to Blade Runner! Of course this book had to be good, right?

Well, with that kind of set up, you probably know where this is going. I disliked this book. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I care about anything that happened in the book. This is the first book in The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, so I expected Boba Fett to feature here, because what book about bounty hunters wouldn’t feature Boba Fett? Instead, he’s a secondary character at best, since Dengar feels like the main character.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first book in the Boba Fett trilogy; this is about all the bounty hunters and the Bounty Hunters Guild. It’s also the start of a trilogy, so there’s a good chance Boba Fett is going to find his way back to being a main character. It’s just odd how Jeter approaches the telling of the story, since the opening scene of the book appears to be after the titular war.

The book opens with Dengar finding Boba Fett, battered and weak, outside of his armor, next to the remains of the sarlacc. He rescues Fett, and we settle in for a story set after the events of Return of the Jedi, but then the book flashes back to events that take place between Empire and Jedi. Jeter flips back and forth between the two timelines, but the bulk of the story takes place earlier, which just didn’t work for me. At the very least, it reduces the tension of the story, since we know some of the characters featured in the earlier timeline are going to make it to the later one.

Most of the book just felt so boring. It was hard to care about the characters, and the plot meandered enough that I had to force myself to come back to the book. At one point, Palpatine and Vader are having a conversation with Prince Xizor of Black Sun, and that conversation goes on for about forty pages. The conversation was important — it layed out much of the plot and hinted at the machinations that would take place ahead — but it went on way too long. The dialogue felt forced and insincere, in that it became more an infodump than a convincing conversation between a few characters. It was way too much speech and not enough action.

Speaking of action, what action there was always felt flat and unemotional. Maybe it was due to my lack of caring about the characters, but once things did get going, I always felt like a distant observer instead of being right there in the action with them.

This was a book with so much potential. I mean, I know someone who, after learning that Disney wasn’t going to do a Boba Fett movie, turned to this trilogy to get his Boba Fett kick. I’m going to have to tell him to skip it. On the one hand, I hate to do it, because he really wants a good Boba Fett story; on the other hand, I have to do it, because I don’t want him to subject himself to this book. Me? I at least have a reason to keep trudging on, but now my expectations won’t be so high.

Started: July 25, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Pandemonium

August 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

demonPandemonium by Daryl Gregory

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My first Daryl Gregory book was We Are All Completely Fine. By the time I got to the end of it, that’s pretty much what I thought of the book: just completely fine. It didn’t stand out to me or otherwise make that big of an impression on me. I went on to read Harrison Squared, though, since it was somewhat related to that novella, and man, did I enjoy the hell out of that book. It made me rethink Gregory all together.

In the world of Pandemonium, demon possession has been a thing since the 1950s. The demons jump from person to person, enough so that they become recognizable. There’s the Painter, the Captain, the Kamikaze, and more, including the Hellion, which possessed Del Pierce, our main character, twice in his youth. Del, however, is convinced his demon never left him, that it’s been penned up in his head since he was five years old. Now in his twenties, he’s ready for it to come out.

Pandemonium is a book that flows easily, keeping you reading long past the time you should have stopped. It’s a great example of how to tell a good story: it’s rich with detail without it overwhelming the story; it’s full of characters, complete with foibles, who are easy to like; and it has a plot that twists and turns and surprises without cheating the reader. It’s a book so well written that it’s impossible to see how he does it. With a bad book, you can see why it’s bad; with a good book, you’re so wrapped up in the story that you can’t bother to look for what makes it work so well.

This is an impressive book, more so when you realize this is Gregory’s first novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, or anyone who like fiction a little offbeat, a little outside the norm. I see comparisons between Gregory and Philip K. Dick, and while I don’t exactly see it, I can see how Gregory’s characters pay homage to him (in more ways than the one obvious one in the story).

Started: July 31, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Whipping Boy

August 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boyWhipping Boy by John Byrne

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In my experience, comic book writers don’t make the best novelists. M.R. Carey aside, their novels tend to be overly descriptive, making them overlong, and while they have a strong visual characteristic, the characterization tends to be lacking. Whipping Boy is no exception.

This is a long novel — nearly 500 pages of small type — and I feel like it could have been trimmed by at least 20% if Byrne had kept his descriptions under control. He also has a flair for the overdramatic: e.g., “From that awful, gaping, distended maw issued forth a cry that Clay Garber did not believe could have been equaled by the voices of a hundred souls pitched headlong into boiling tar.” It’s the kind of prose that makes you feel embarrassed for the writer.

The thing is, the story is fairly interesting, at least by way of its theme. The story is about Paul Trayne, a young boy who has the power to absorb the guilt, shame, and other negative feelings of people around him. The problem is that once he absorbs those feelings, the people are left with no moral compass, no way of knowing right from wrong. After unleashing his powers on a small town and leaving them in the chaos of not caring, he moves on to Chicago, where he plans to use his powers on a larger scale. It’s an intriguing premise, with an interesting theme, especially when, near the end of the story, Byrne has a character soliloquize internally about how it’s not the boy who did the terrible things, but the people. Sure, it’s a tired horror trope, but it’s effective.

The problem is Byrne doesn’t do anything with it but tell a story. He doesn’t capture the characters well enough for us to empathize with their dilemmas, instead presenting us with more and more graphic depictions of the horrible things people do to each other. We don’t get that unsettling feeling that, yes, we the readers could just as easily become the monsters if we were in the same situation. It feels emotionless and pointless.

The other issue is that Byrne doesn’t give us a compelling reason as to why Paul and his father are doing what they do. I think they’re just supposed to be evil (there’s a priest character who reinforces that idea), but it’s not enough to define their motivation, and it’s hard to feel engaged with their characters without it. Plus, in the final act of the novel, Paul’s character changes on us, and while Byrne explains why it changes, and it fits with the story, he doesn’t get us to feel it. As such, it feels flat and forced.

So, there’s potential here, but Byrne doesn’t bring it to fruition. For an Abyss book, it’s still a level above the other dreck they published (barring Tem and Koja), but it’s not so much that it stands among the best works from the line. It has too many cliches, it tells too much, and it doesn’t stick the landing well enough.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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The Expert System’s Brother

August 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brotherThe Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’m a card-carrying member of the “Read Anything Adrian Tchaikovsky Writes” club. I regret getting into his fiction so late in his career, but after the brilliance of Children of Time and then the witty cleverness of Spiderlight, I went ahead and bought a full membership. The Expert System’s Brother is just the latest in a series of impressive books that play around with genre conventions to make an original, memorable story.

With this novella, Tchaikovsky drops us into a primitive yet futuristic world, and begins to parcel out what we need to know about the setting on a need-to-know basis. Oddly, it doesn’t feel forced, nor does it feel like Tchaikovsky is making it up as he goes along; instead, it feels realized in a way that suggests he is intimately familiar with the world and knows how to set the stage without having to reveal all of his tricks. In fact, as you read the story, the impenetrable title begins to make more sense, until you understand it well enough to understand the clue it gives you regarding the story.

Tchaikovsky injects the story with a questioning-authority theme by examining zealoutry and mob mentality. Two passages stand out to me in this regard:

When we surround ourselves with people who call evil good, how quickly we accept their definitions and speak them back, round and round until every way we experience the world is tainted by it.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default.

The latter quote is reminiscent of one from Spiderlight, but it’s poignant and thoughtful enough that I’m not going to complain about seeing it twice.

While the book didn’t wow me like Children of Time or Spiderlight did, it kept my interest and played with my expectations. I like books that do that, and the way Tchaikovsky manages to do that with all of his books keeps my interest piqued. Besides, Children of Time is just so damned good that I feel like I have to lower my expectations since it seems to be the story he was working toward from the day he started writing. This is probably a 3.5-star story, but I bumped it up to four because Tchaikovsky continues to impress me.

Started: July 24, 2018
Finished: July 30, 2018

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Come Closer

August 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

closerCome Closer by Sara Gran

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I’ve seen this novella described as literary horror, which is timely, since I just finished another novella that could be described as literary science fiction. In that review, I asked what made a story transcend genre to be considered literature, and I concluded that it has to do with how well the author depicts their main character with an everyperson quality. Gran doesn’t quite accomplish this here with her main character, Amanda, but she does capture the decline of a relationship as one person descends a downward spiral of madness.

Come Closer is about a woman, Amanda, who finds herself possessed by a demon. At first, it seems like Gran is using the possession to play with our expectations of the character. In the beginning, it’s easy to wonder if the possession is real or if it’s all in Amanda’s head, but as the story progresses, we realize that no, this is a genuine possession. By the end of the story, though, we’re left wondering again, though not in the way we might expect.

The story has a sense of inevitability about it, especially as you near the end of the book and realize there’s not much room left for Amanda to return from her possession. Things get worse and worse, and the story grows bleaker by the page, where you’re left wondering just how far Gran is going to take Amanda. The answer is “As far as she can.”

I enjoyed this book for its straightforward, no-nonsense style, which is steeped in doom but strangely lacking in atmosphere. Gran’s style makes the horrific stand out even more, like a blood spatter against a clean white sheet, and she excels at grabbing your attention without being graphic. This book is Good Horror, and anyone who wants a dark look into the human (or demon) psyche would be well advised to read it.

Started: July 21, 2018
Finished: July 23, 2018

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Prime Meridian

August 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

primePrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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You might believe this is a science-fiction novella, and for good reason. It’s marketed as one, it’s set in a near-future Mexico City, and Moreno-Garcia is a known genre author. The story itself, though, isn’t a typical science-fiction story, though it doesn’t suffer for it.

Amelia, twenty-five and struggling to get by in Mexico City, dreams of going to Mars. She’s had the dream since she was younger, and even had plans to go, but life, especially for a young woman in Mexico City, gets in the way. An ailing mother, a weak job market, and an apathy born of lost opportunity conspire against her wishes. Working as a friend-for-hire as her means of support, she struggles to find meaning while living with her sister and children, but there’s none to be found.

Prime Meridian is a story that could exist as literature or science fiction, as the science fictional elements are all in the setting. The story is a character examination, looking at one lost soul who represents all the disadvantaged young adults looking for identity in a changing world. Remove or replace the science fictional elements, and you’re left with a story that could be published in a literary magazine.

Which, of course, begs the question of when a story crosses from genre fiction to literary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro managed it with Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood accomplished that feat with The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), so what sets them apart? It can’t just be the character studies, since there’s plenty of genre fiction that does the same. I think it has to do with how well the author can make their main character an everyperson, someone who captures the zeitgeist of that moment. Moreno-Garcia does so with Amelia, who represents the disillusioned Millennial generation.

The story is oddly compelling, considering that it’s not plot-driven. Moreno-Garcia knows how to pace her story to keep the reader reading, introducing more and more pieces of her story until she brings us to the end of this arc in Amelia’s life. It’s a gentle story, and while it doesn’t end with all the answers, it answers just enough to ease our curiosity. What happens next is up to us.

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: July 21, 2018

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The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

August 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

catThe Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not sure why, but I was under the impression that this book fell earlier in Heinlein’s career. No, instead this is his penultimate book, full of all the thinks he became notorious for: blatant sexism; looser plots; more libertarianism; and much, much more perversity. I mean, I’m no prude, but when the book opens with a woman telling the male narrator that he’s stretched her out and made her no good for anyone else, it sets an uncomfortable tone.

The book is peppered with Heinlein’s philosophy on everything, and halfway through, we get the full doctrine on women and government. He had a profound misunderstanding of socialism, and a misogynistic attitude in general, and it offended me so much I almost stopped listening. Then I wondered how bad it would get, and decided to tough it out. Let me illustrate some of the biggest WTF moments:

  1. I’ve already covered the size-of-dick passage that pretty much opens the book, but I have to put it at the top of the list. It just … what? It’s baffling.
  2. The female lead walks out on the male lead, over his being an absolute jerk, but then she comes back, begging HIM to take HER back.
  3. A woman expresses anger over something said to her, but the narrator notes that “her nipples crinkled”, which he takes to mean she’s secretly pleased.
  4. Four thousand years in the future, a computer responds to a request by saying “Yassuh massah”.

Of course, the future is full of free love, with married people not just allowed, but expected to sleep with however many people as possible, and since this is a Heinlein novel, that means some of them are underage and related to each other (though he does throw in some M/M action, which was unexpected). Again, I’m no prude, but I can’t help but feel like this is more one of Heinelein’s fantasies and less a novel, though I feel that way about Stranger in a Strange Land, too.

All that aside, the story just isn’t that great. Time for the Stars and The Door into Summer were good stories, compelling and entertaining, but this novel rambles around with no obvious point. He pulls in important information only when it’s necessary, instead of setting it up earlier in the story and bringing it in when it’s relevant. The end result is a story that’s just one event after another, loosely tied together as an adventure novel. The characters aren’t very sympathetic either, since they’re insufferable. They’re privileged and entitled, and their approach to everything is one of condescension.

This book is indefensible to me. It’s questionable in so many ways, and it’s not even that good of a story on top of that. I’m still looking forward to reading Heinlein’s juvenile books, but I’m questioning if I want to read anything else from his later years.

Started: July 9, 2018
Finished: July 19, 2018

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Into the Drowning Deep

July 31, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

deepInto the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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I’ve read a bunch of novellas by Grant/McGuire so far, but Into the Drowning Deep is the first novel of hers I’ve read. I had been looking forward to it, since I’ve liked her style, but felt like the novellas moved too quickly, or didn’t give enough attention to the character development. I chalked it up to the brevity of the format, and wanted to see what she could do with a full-length novel. Rolling in the Deep helped me move this up my list to read.

In a way, I was right, in that the novel starts out being almost exactly like the novella, just with more character and plot development. It’s definitely the same story (scientists and television producers go out to the Mariana Trench to discover if mermaids are real), but it uses different characters and goes into more depth with the cast and their trials. The good news is Grant’s characterization skills are top notch, as she draws out a cast of different characters who are all distinct and likeable (or unlikeable, as the case may be).

The thing is, there’s something about Grant’s style overall that feels a little flighty, giving the suggestion that we shouldn’t take the events too seriously. We should, because this is a straight-up horror novel set at sea, and it’s not that Grant’s style is irreverent, but it has a kind of casual feel that’s at odds with the tone of the story. It’s a characteristic I’m finding more often in more recent genre fiction, and I’m not quite used to it.

Aside from that, though, Into the Drowning Deep is a solid novel, in that it’s easily accessible, palpably tense, and populated with characters whose desires drive the plot. It doesn’t quite compare with the brilliance of her Wayward Children series, but it does show off Grant’s skills as a writer. One of these days I’ll commit to some of her longer series.

Started: June 24, 1028
Finished: July 15, 2018

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The Orpheus Process

July 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

orpehusThe Orpheus Process by Daniel H. Gower

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The Orpheus Process was lucky thirteen in the Dell/Abyss line of books, so of course it has to be a good one, right? It won’t be as bad as either of the Ron Dee books, right? I’m not just trying to pump myself up for reading another crappy horror novel, right?

Unfortunately, no. The Orpheus Process doesn’t delve as deeply into the pointlessness that Dusk, Obsessed, or Descent did, but it’s hardly a good book. It has a dry, unemotional style that feels very tell-y, while also having a melodramatic, over-the-top feel to how Gower tells the story. It’s filled with stilted dialogue and inconsistent characters who flip-flop on their decisions without much reason why. I pegged that much of it within the first fifty pages, but the rest of the book revealed bad science, gratuitous violence, and ridiculous plotting. The book is readable, and doesn’t tread the misogyny line as much as those other three books (though there is a heavy dose of sexism), but that’s about the best I can say for it.

This isn’t a book that makes me want to throw it into the fire, but neither is it a book I would ever want to re-read, nor is it one I would recommend. To paraphrase Eric Idle, this isn’t a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding. I have fond memories of this publishing line, but I should have remembered Sturgeon’s Law before attempting this reading project, as I have regrets.

Started: July 5, 2018
Finished: July 15, 2018

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Messenger’s Legacy

July 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

legacyMessenger’s Legacy by Peter V. Brett

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Right as I was starting to read The Core, I discovered that Brett had another novella that fell between books three and four of his Demon Cycle. Since I was finishing out the series, I figured I needed to read it, too, but since I had already started The Core, I decided to wait to read this one. That was both a good idea and a bad idea.

It was a good idea, because I didn’t remember Briar from the previous books, and The Core helped jog my memory and let me know who he was. It was a bad idea, though, because by the time I finished this book, I knew what had happened to him when he was younger, albeit just in the broad sense. Messenger’s Legacy feels superfluous afterward, since all it does is flesh out the details. Had I read the book in its right place, it might have had a different effect on me, and it’s certainly not fair to judge the novella on my own failure to stick to the timeline, but it definitely makes a difference.

I don’t think the book is necessary to read if you’ve already finished the series, but if you’re reading the series fresh, make sure you drop this volume into its right place. It will be new to you there, and will set the ground for the character when he enters the story as a key player. Not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Core, but it would have made a difference had I read it in its proper place in the chronology.

Started: July 14, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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