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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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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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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Pick the Plot

August 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

plotPick the Plot by James Riley

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The whole Story Thieves series has been pretty clever so far, but Riley raises that cleverness a notch by turning the fourth novel into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Since the series frequently breaks the fourth wall for Owen and Bethany’s adventures, Riley brings the reader in as an important character in the story, which makes sense, since most of the CYOA books were written in the second person. Pick the Plot, though, is not.

This time around, Owen is trapped in a time prison back in prehistoric times, and the prison is set up so that it resets at the end of each day, putting the prisoners back on their first day there, with no memories of what happened in the previous day. Since the story sometimes sends the readers back to the beginning of the story to pick the next choice in a situation, the conceit works well, even if it means the story is pretty much on rails. As I was reading, I cheated with some choices so I could make sure I read the whole book, but it turns out that Riley will still steer you in the direction he wants you to go. There is a divergence in the story that alters part of the plot, but it reconnects with the ending so there’s still only one complete plot. For a book in a series, though, this is to be expected; if there were different endings, it would affect the next book.

Speaking of which, it looks like Story Thieves is coming to an end with the next book. While I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in this universe, I’m glad that Riley is working toward a known ending, instead of carrying the series out through too many books. It’s been a fun ride, thanks in part to how clever it’s been, but it feels like it will be going out on a good note. I’ll be starting the final book immediately after this one, so I’ll let y’all know.

Started: July 15, 2018
Finished: July 17, 2018

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Return of the Jedi

July 26, 2018 at 4:25 pm (Reads) (, , )

jediReturn of the Jedi by James Kahn

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Return of the Jedi is my least favorite of the original trilogy of movies. I’ve never been convinced that Vader showed any signs of having good in him before this movie, and the way Luke keeps telling everyone that he does never made much sense to me. It’s a sticking point for me, and I have yet to see anything in the movies that resolved it for me. When I started this novelization, I was hoping the book would give more insight into how Luke knew that about his father.

Unfortunately, the novel sheds no additional light on on Luke’s revelation. Instead, it makes Vader out to be even more cold blooded, enough so that he struck me as a character who was less likely to have any good in him than in the movie. The novel does go into a little more depth, adding dialogue that was likely cut from the script before filming, but it doesn’t resolve that central issue I had with the book.

The novelization is a bit tell-y, and the characterization feels weaker since Kahn appears to rely on readers being familiar with the characters from the movie instead of developing them in the story itself. It’s a decent enough read, and would entertain someone looking for a quick read, but I don’t see why anyone would choose to read the book over seeing the movie. It doesn’t add enough to make it a necessary read.

Started: July 6, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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The Door into Summer

July 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

doorThe Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

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I still haven’t read enough Heinlein to be an expert on his fiction, but I’ve read enough of his fiction and people writing about his fiction to know what to expect from his books. There seems to be a divide in his ouevre, separating his juvenile works from his adult works, with the consensus being that his juvenile books represent his best work. The Door into Summer feels like it’s a hybrid of the two; it feels like he’s still writing in his juvenile style, but starting to write for and about adults.

Because it’s Heinlein, you get the standard sexist and anti-government stances, though he hasn’t quite yet reached the point where that’s the point of the book. Unforunately, it also means that the book will feature a male main character in an inappropriate relationship with a female minor who is also related to the main character. I wouldn’t have expected that to be a standard thing in a Heinlein novel, but both Time for the Stars and The Door into Summer have featured such a relationship. In both cases, the relationships are instigated by the minor, but that doesn’t make it any less inappropriate or icky. It’s hard to defend the rest of the book due to this one aspect of it, but it reads so well that I’m going to try.

I read an article by Jo Walton where she noted that no one could write a sentence that compelled you to read the next one like Heinlein, and I get that. The stories are wildly compelling, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. They just work, in an organic kind of way that defies explanation. I’m hesitant to read any of his later works, since I understand they veer off into blatant crazy-man philosophies, but these earlier works make me want to read all of his stuff. I have another audiobook to finish before I begin tackling the rest of his earlier books, but I’m looking forward to reading them.

The later stuff, though? I feel like I’m going to have to ease my way into them.

Started: July 2, 2018
Finished: July 8, 2018

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Tales from Jabba’s Palace

July 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

jabbaTales from Jabba’s Palace, edited by Kevin J. Anderson

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One of the things I like about these anthologies edited by Anderson is how the stories interweave to tell a larger story concerning the scene from the movie. These aren’t standalone stories about each character; they’re stories that, together, form a larger picture about what’s happening behind the throne room. It’s a clever idea, made admirable by how Anderson had to work with the authors to make sure the stories worked together. It makes me wonder if Anderson came up with the backstory, or if the authors worked together to create it.

Like any anthology, though, the stories are mixed, with some good ones (A.C. Crispin’s take on Yarna was especially good) and some bad ones, with a lot of them just being mediocre. They do a lot to fill in backstories, which seems to be the primary purpose of a lot of the Expanded Universe books, but as stories, they’re not always the best. It doesn’t help that some of the more notable characters, like Boba Fett and Oola, don’t get the kind of attention one would expect. There’s more opportunity for comedy with these characters, though, which isn’t something you see too often in the books. Salacious Crumb’s and the Gamorrean guard’s stories stand out in that respect.

Despite liking Crispin’s story, I had issues with it being the tale of the “Fat Dancer”. I mean, the frog-thing from that one two-second scene gets his own story, and is named in the title, but here we get “Fat Dancer”? She has a name, folks. Why reduce her down to one characteristic? Given that the story was written by a woman, I was surprised this was the approach taken to it. It was disappointing.

So, it’s a little good, and a little mediocre, though none of the stories were bad. This is part of the reason I’ve stopped reading anthologies, save for ones where I have a reason to feel all the stories are of high quality. I just prefer stories with more room to breathe, and written by authors I know and trust to take me on a good ride.

Started: June 22, 2018
Finished: July 1, 2018

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Time for the Stars

July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

starsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not new to Heinlein, but it’s only been recently when I decided to read more of his work. I recently listened to Sixth Column on audio, and found it to be decent, but nothing spectacular. That one isn’t considered to be one of his juvenile novels, though, and Time for the Stars is. I was surprised with how much I liked this book, though I guess I shouldn’t be; everyone else has known for decades how good a storyteller Heinlein was, so it’s finally time for me to discover him.

Time for the Stars is about a pair of twins, Tom and Pat, who learn they’re psychic after they’re tested for a long-term science experiment. See, speaking psychically happens instantaneously, which makes it easier for communication to take place between Earth and deep-space ships. The two of them are recruited for a space journey to look for other planets to populate, one of them to travel into space, the other to stay at home to receive their messages.

Heinlein captures character and setting well, and the story features an interesting interplay of science and psychology. The story is compelling, namely because of the characters, but it has a strong “What’s going to happen next?” feel to it. Heinlein examines the time dilation that occurs in ships traveling near the speed of light, so as Tom, the space twin, only ages a few years through the story, Pat ages decades. Heinlein’s themes work well, too, especially considering this book was published over sixty years ago. He looks at the bonds of family, and how loving and liking your family are two different things. This being a Heinlein book, it starts off with a strong anti-tax, anti-government angle to it, but luckily that’s not the point of the story.

Of course, the biggest critcism of Heinlein is his view of women. They may be smart, capable, and strong in his stories, but they’re still evaluated first and foremost on their attractiveness. This could be a product of the time in which the story was written (women are also relegated to roles of cooks, caretakers, seamstresses, etc., even on a space ship), but for Heinlein to be progressive in other ways, it’s disheartening to see him be backward in this one.

I’m eager to read the rest of Heinlein’s juvenile works. Oh, OK, I’m interested in reading his non-juvenile books, too, but given how I remember Stranger in a Strange Land as a ponderous, overwrought, male sexual fantasy story, I’m more interested in the juveniles right now.

Started: June 19, 2018
Finished: June 25, 2018

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Tales from the Empire

July 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

empireTales from the Empire, edited by Peter F. Schweighofer

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Before Timothy Zahn restarted the Expanded Universe with the Thrawn trilogy, West End Games did a lot of expanding themselves, not just with their Star Wars RPG. They published stories in their own magazine, with the intention of shedding more light on characters, settings, and races that were featured in the game materials. Tales from the Empire is the first of two collections Schweighofer put together using some of those stories.

Like any anthology, Tales from the Empire is a mixed bag of quality, with some well-written stories (Patricia A. Jackson’s “The Final Exit” and Michael A. Stackpole’s “Missed Chance” stand out) and some other stories that are less interesting. In his foreword, Schweighofer discusses how he collected stories by well-known authors (Timothy Zahn and Stackpole, for example), but he also collected stories by lesser-known authors. I liked Erin Endom’s “Do No Harm”, since it was written by a medical doctor, and had a lot of medical detail, but the other newbie stories were just OK. I didn’t actively dislike any of the stories (save for Side Trip, a novella co-written by Zahn and Stackpole; it just didn’t live up to its potential), but there were only a few stories I expect to remember years from now.

One thing I did like about the anthology is how the stories focused on characters outside of the Skywalkers. There might have been a reference or two here and there, but for the most part, we had a chance to see other people who played an important role in the universe. By the same token, the stories weren’t able to rely on character development from other sources, so it took longer to get a sense of them, in what were already shorter works. Still, I like that the authors recognized that there were other characters in the universe worthy of their own stories.

I can appreciate what West End and Schweighofer did for the Expanded Universe, especially in keeping the license alive, but I can’t help but feel like these stories would be better for players of the RPG. They rely so much on material created by the company, other readers will miss some of the references. Plus, unlike the anthologies edited by Kevin J. Anderson, the stories aren’t based on a famous event, making them more esoteric. As a result, it felt like the collection missed the mark with me.

Started: June 10, 2018
Finished: June 20, 2018

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