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Sci-Fi Review: ‘Faith’ by John Love

FaithSynopsis from Goodreads: Faith is the name humanity has given to the unknown, seemingly invincible alien ship that has begun to harass the newly emergent Commonwealth. 300 years earlier, the same ship destroyed the Sakhran Empire, allowing the Commonwealth to expand its sphere of influence. But now Faith has returned! The ship is as devastating as before, and its attacks leave some Commonwealth solar systems in chaos. Eventually it reaches Sakhra, now an important Commonwealth possession, and it seems like history is about to repeat itself. But this time, something is waiting: an Outsider, one of the Commonwealth”s ultimate warships. Slender silver ships, full of functionality and crewed by people of unusual abilities, often sociopaths or psychopaths, Outsiders were conceived in back alleys, built and launched in secret, and commissioned without ceremony. One system away from earth, the Outsider ship Charles Manson makes a stand. Commander Foord waits with his crew of miscreants and sociopath, hoping to accomplish what no other human has been able to do – to destroy Faith!

The reviewer is obviously stuck on this review. He even used a ‘Goodreads’ summery to start the review, and he never does that.  He has been staring at the opening to his review of ‘Faith’ for so long he has started talking to himself.  Worse, some kind of internal narrator has turned on.  Let’s zoom in closer and see if we can listen in.

The worst part is I don’t even know if I liked the book or not.  On the whole I mean.  Obviously I liked, even loved some of it, but did I enjoy the whole?  A book that certainly didn’t deserve to end up forgotten as it seems to have been, but perhaps not as good as I had hoped based on others glowing reviews.

Ah, a rough start, but he seems to be falling into a familiar rhythm.

For over a hundred pages I was completely hooked.  One hundred percent sucked in, near perfection in the form of a space battle.  Pick your metaphor, Ahab and his whale, the Bismarck and the Hood, whatever you want; a cat and mouse game with two cats.  Every move countered beautifully, an unknown chess master against a genius madman.  This is not a low rent space battle where ship X shoots lasers at ship Y then describe the explosion. This was a tactical masterpiece.  Loved it.

But?

The beginning of the book was pointless.  Completely pointless.  I spent forty pages reading about the captain’s trip from a crewmembers’ house back to the port in a horse drawn carriage (well, some kind of sci-fi stock animal anyway).  In a sci-fi book.  For no good reason.  It wasn’t exciting; it showed us nothing about the captain that wasn’t shown better in other places..  I kept waiting for it to prove important later, but it didn’t.   Really, outside of the amazing long term battle much of the book was self-indulgent.

Really Nathan, you’re going to call someone else’s writing self-indulgent?

Take for instance the insertion of sexual metaphors into the battle.  Nothing wrong with that, but the way it was handled didn’t really work for me.  Some authors may have snuck it in artfully so I might not even catch it on the first read through.  Some may have tried to do so, but handled it clumsily.  The author here put it in, and then seems to have felt a need to put up giant signs pointing out that he did.  ‘Look at this, over here!  It is a metaphor for sexual penetration!  Get it!?’  Here is a quote from when they penetrated a breach with a warhead.

“She never cared about it exploding, She just wanted it inside Her.  And we gave it to Her.  Part of us is now part of Her.” Pg288

His head sinks back down, deep thought or perhaps he is falling asleep.  Must be some heavy thinking going on in that simple brain..no wait, his head is back up and the fingers are reaching for the keyboard…

To be honest the ending kind of lost me too.  It all got a bit too, meta.  May be more a reflection on me than the book but once the two ships hit a stalemate in which their course was locked together some typical sci-fi ‘weird shit’ slowed the book down dramatically for me.  Perhaps I just don’t get it, or it proves that this book just isn’t for me, but it killed the momentum that was working so well.

So what do we have?  I am of two minds.  A whole lot of potential and certainly a book that should be read by a lot more people who like the genre.  Notes should be taken by future writers on how to do a space battle right.  But this crazy short book could be even tighter without some of the frivolous stuff taken out.

We wait with bated breath young man, what is your final verdict going to be?  Does the book rise above your issues?  Is it sunk completely?  What are you going to do?

Screw it, I’ll just give it three stars and go get a beer.

Bravo!  Beer is always the right choice when the going gets tough.  Well done old boy, well done.

3 Stars

Discussion: Ever Rethink Your Star Ratings?

Your Opinion WelcomeI was going to post this question on twitter, but then I realized two things.  A.  Twitter conversations usually suck and get real hard to follow in a hurry.  B.  I have a self-hosted blogging space, what the hell am I doing trying to have a conversation on twitter?

Anyway, with the addition of Evergreen Tweet Caster I am rereading my own early reviews from this site, many of which I have not looked at since I posted.  And I have realized a couple of things.  While I am the type who will never really be happy with what I write I can safely say some of those early reviews are horrible.  But that isn’t really the point today either, I am sure many bloggers have the same issue.

What really got me thinking was a few of the star ratings that I gave that have me second guessing myself.

Let’s be clear, I will never change those ratings.  For one it would go against my review policy and mess with the integrity of the site.  But I also feel that the rating I give at the time of the review is probably the fairest one to show.  After all, the emotion of the now is a huge part of the reading experience.  Sometimes I will overrate a book no doubt, but if I can’t trust my feelings right after I read it, why should I think I have a better perspective later one?  For instance, in one of my known Star Wars binges I was in such a rut that I gave three stars to a thoroughly mediocre book that I really didn’t enjoy at all, just because it was slightly better than the last few of the universe I had read.  I rating influenced by the surrounding reads if you will.  I could no doubt find a few others that left zero long term impression on me that may be slightly over rated.

But it works both ways.  I can think of two books right now that I gave a very respectable four stars to, yet have stuck with me long enough I wonder if I was being too stingy that day.  Linda Nagata’s ‘The Dread Hammer’ and ‘The Scar’ by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko are among my top five reads of the year, both have stayed with me long past when I read them.

I know the star rating is the least important part of the review.  No one takes on a new read on a rating along, it is only a guideline to provide a cheater summery and the review should stand on its own.  But this is the kind of thing I think about.

So my question is, am I the only one thinking about this?  Does anyone else have reviews they look back on and wonder what they were thinking?  Have a book you want to give a shout out two because you feel guilty for underrating?  On the extreme side of things, would you under any circumstances change a rating, perhaps after rereading the book?

Please friends, discuss!

Sci-fi Review: ‘Barrayar’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga, #7)Minor spoilers of Shards of Honor are possible, you have been warned.

Wow, what a wonderful book.  This just blows its predecessor out of the water.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Shards of Honor quite a bit.  (And I realize that technically this is not the second book of the series, but it was packaged this way in my omnibus and who am I to argue?)  I thought Bujold’s first book was full of heart, with a protagonist that quickly was proving to be a favorite.  It was a page turner, a sci-fi book that read like a light fantasy; but it is managed to show a bit of depth beneath its light exterior.

But wow, amateur hour compared to Barrayar.  This book showed several fronts, all in about three hundred pages, and each storyline got the depth it deserved without ever becoming real convoluted.  A wonderfully funny start; Cordelia trying to fit in to her new place in a society that is alien to her.  The relationship she shares with Aral, her husband, is absolutely perfect.  Flirty and playful, occasional fights that don’t cause pages of brooding, with give and take from both sides.  The story starts out as a fish out of water story as Cordelia navigates the court and learns what goes with her husband’s new position as regent to the boy emperor.  Several favorite scenes come to mind, but the one where she tries to catalog all the unwritten rules about who can talk about sex to whom is one of the funniest passages I have read all year. 

But just as I sit wondering if this supposed sci-fi book was going to be all dinner parties and playful banter a simmering pot boils over and the book quite naturally takes a new turn.  An attempted coop moves the book down two incredibly interesting paths; the political side of what is happening and the adventure that goes with it.  The politics were light but worth following, dealing mostly with Aral and what he needs to do to retake control.  The adventure portions did what they needed to; keeping me turning pages at a furious pace to ensure everyone is going to be alright. This isn’t real dark fiction with a huge body count, but survival was not guaranteed for all characters and the danger felt real.

Where this book shines though is in characters.  Trite to say, I know, but true.  Outside of a few all too evil types all the adventures and plot twists seem to give at least one, sometimes several, characters just a bit more life.  People act like people, not characters in a book, which I must admit even some of my favorite authors have trouble bringing across.  Cordelia watches a conversation from afar and makes up her own dialog in her head.  Not only was it hilarious, but it is totally something I have done when bored.  Her fight for her unborn son will resonate with any parent; the way she project that protective nature on to another’s child (and the way she wasn’t the only one to do so) was heartwarming to say the least.  I will have to see how the series develops, but two books in Cordelia has quickly become one of my favorite characters.

Much like the first book I could care less about Aral Vorkosigan, one of the few week points of the book as he often acted as Cordelia’s straight man, so instead I will focus on the background cast.  Bothari specifically was incredible.  A mentally damaged man with a horrible past, yet his fierce loyalty to Cordelia and awareness of his own issues make him a person one can’t help but like, yet pity.  Never does a reader forget the man’s past and capabilities for more issues to come, but every time he shows the fortitude to get past his limitations it feels like a victory.  Contrast Bothari, who is physically a superman but mentally a mess, with Koudelka who must come to terms with the fact that he will never physically be what he once was.  Yet another plot line that could have felt trite if not played right, but for once I bought completely that he had to see himself as others saw him to understand things would be all right.

A book with great characters who feel more real throughout, a surprising amount of humor, and a pace that just didn’t slow down.  Seriously, Bujold deserves all the praise she gets.  I started with her fantasy, but this series has won another convert in me.

5 Stars.  I am not sure the book did anything real unique or groundbreaking (though it is old, so maybe at the time it was groundbreaking).  But I sure enjoyed the hell out of it.

Steampunk Reviews: ‘ The Lazarus Machine’ and ‘The Osiris Curse’ by Paul Crilley

The Lazarus Machine (Tweed & Nightingale Adventures, #1)The Osiris Curse (Tweed & Nightingale Adventures, #2)Note: What follows is a review of two books, The Lazarus Machine and The Osiris Curse.  I have chosen to review them together because I read them back to back on a weekend trip and there really isn’t enough to differentiate them into separate reviews.

The rules of steampunk are simple.

1. Set the story in Victorian England.

2.  Put a slightly askew male character together with an all-to-aware plucky female character.

3.  Have them solve a mystery that involves secret plots against The Empire.

4.  Choose one or more of the following: Zombies, Mummys, Secret Societies, Vampires, and any literary characters that fit the time period you want.

Not groundbreaking, but not meant to be.  Serial fiction with some by-the-numbers plots, full of adventure and banter.  I can’t imagine anyone being fooled going in as to what they are going to get here, so why judge it for anything other than what it is supposed to be?

Tweed is a socially awkward teen genius that helps his dad pull cons off.  Nightingale is low rung journalist searching for clues as to where her mother has gone.  When Tweed’s dad is taken by what appears to be a once thought dead Moriarty fate works to bring these two unlikely partners together.  Learning that they work well together, they fight, search and flirt their way through two books of adventure.

So the question is how well does the book do what its purpose seems to suggest?  Does it provide entertaining escapism?  Does the dynamic duo work well together and have a good line of banter?  (Yes, I consider banter a requirement).  I am a person who believes if I enjoy a book it is not a waste of time, no matter how light and fluffy, and for both books in this series I found myself entertained plenty.

What drives the series so far is Tweed and Nightingale as a duo.  The series does a little better than some in establishing that the feminist rights movement has a good foothold in this alt world, so Nightingale’s awareness and ability to move within the world is a little less out of place than some Victorian fantasy tales.  Tweed is suitable strange and in one facet surprisingly realistic; he is plenty confident in himself, even arrogant at times, yet finds him second guessing himself when in social situations.  The pair provides the banter I love, perhaps a little too snappy under duress situations, but that is to be expected.  They take turns rescuing each other, switch roles as mastermind of the operations, and in short just WORK.  Their requisite romantic feelings are played just enough to be interesting without ever getting in the way of the rest of the story.  The second book especially played it well, with some well-timed white knight comments made in relation to both of them.

Plot wise The Lazarus Machine was a better book.  It had its share of WTF moments, with an eleven year old hacker really raising my eyebrows (yes, computers ran by punchcards).  But it was set up quickly, introducing us to all the various influences that are canon in this alt-world.  Tesla machines and Sherlock Holmes are almost assured in the genre; also present is Gibson’s Difference Engine and Frankenstein and his works.  The dynamic duo find a plot against the queen, learn of a machine that can move a person’s soul, and of course end up saving the day.  (Spoiler?  Of course it is, but if you didn’t know it was coming by the end of the book I can’t help you).

The Osiris Curse was a bit weaker.  Same fun ideas, same dynamic due, but not as interesting in plot.  A missing Egyptologist may have stumbled on a secret that could change everything.  Tesla is murdered in his lab.  And Tweed and Nightingale stumble into yet another plot against the Empire.  This time the team will follow the trail to Egypt, and then into the center of the world.  The details were even more farfetched; coincidences came a bit too often, and major characters were painfully clueless at times.  But it did have lizard men, so that could be a selling point for some.  Not a bad book, it follows the same formula that made the first book endearing.  Just not as good in my mind.

Chances are if you have read much steampunk you have a read a book just like these.  George Mann, Philippa Balantine, and even Gail Carriger (with a bit more romance) have all written something with this formula.  But if this is the kind of thing you like give it a run.  It certainly worked for me, and made my down time this weekend fly.

4 stars –The Lazarus Machine

3 stars- The Osiris Curse

Copies for review provided by the publisher.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Lure of Fools’ by Jason King

The Lure of Fools‘The Lure of Fools,’ or Tropey McTroperson walks through Tropesville, is an epic fantasy novel in which absolutely nothing you have not seen before happens.  Behold!  A farm boy with a thirst for adventure wishes for something more.  Is he aware he is living in a fantasy novel?  Perhaps

“He really did hate the so-called normal life of their small village.  His childhood dreams were of traveling the world..”

But wait, there is more!  He is also…wait for it…an orphan!  And he grows up with a young girl his age who is also an orphan, and she might, just maybe, be harboring a crush on him that he is unaware of.  Aw, young love.  What of our young orphaned love interest?  What is her story?  She is also an orphan, and has raised her developmentally challenged brother since their mother died.

“Their widowed mother had lived a chronically tragic life.  She prostituted for several years..”

Of course she did.  There was some potential there with the brother, an avenue rarely explored in fantasy.  But let’s just leave any thoughts of goodwill behind on that one, our young heroine (Maely) will soon be leaving the brother behind to follow her ONE TRUE LOVETM.  (Side note, I honestly don’t done if the period should be before or after the TM and I am too lazy to Google it).  Brother is quickly forgotten, brought up only a few times but never factoring into the story.

So Jerakan (our farmboy turned man of destiny) is in town when a group of baddies ride in.  He knows they are bad, everyone in town can sense it.  He goes home and tells his Uncle who goes into a frenzy because he has A PASTTM. Said Uncle digs out an old sword, hands it off to his teenage, naïve nephew, and tells him to go right back into town to join an adventuring party looking a magic source to hid the sword form the baddies.  That’s right, right back to where the men who are searching for the sword were last seen.

So Jekaran goes on an adventure and Maely wants to follow.  Knowing that girls are not allowed on the quest, she cuts her hair and puts on a hat, completely fooling Jekaran for most of the book with her clever disguise.  Things go a little crazy, J-man bonds with the sword which turns him into super amazing warrior complete with backflips and somersaults while fighting, and a broken English speaking lizardman follows Jekaran because he has green eyes (which isn’t unknown in the land, but somehow marks him as the man of destiny).

OH, and the party is also joined by a flawless elf like creature (I smell a LOVE TRIANGLE) who is first seen by Jekaran as a group of men surround her and threaten rape.  She joins the party because why not, destiny and whatever else have you.  She wants to walk up to the king and warn him that one of her people is looking to wipe out all humans.  What’s her plan?

“I must journey to your capitol city and meet with your king.”

Alright then.

Pursued by multiple sources, some admittedly cool crystal golems on one side, and a rage filled cliché on the other, the party continues on their journey to nowhere, fight and get captured, and solve everything by remembering they have magic.  The magic system was pure video game; magic items refilled by Mana Apeiron.  Perhaps Sanderson fans looking for a much shorter book can find something to like here.  Oh, and Maely broods because Jerakan doesn’t love her.

I don’t know, I could be overly critical here.  This was not a horribly written book, just not all that interesting to me.  The most interesting aspect, a man turned to an avatar of death in the introduction, is completely absent form this volume; obviously his story is going to be bigger in future books but it was the only one I cared about.

2 Stars.

 

Review copy received through NetGalley.

Fantasy Review: ‘All is Fair’ by Emma Newman

All Is Fair (The Split Worlds, #3)Spoilers for the first two books are very possible.

Here I am again, for the third time, wondering how to review a book in Emma Newman’s ‘Split Worlds’ series.  Obviously these books do something for me, I keep reading, nay, devouring them.  I am not sure there is a series that once I get an entry in my hands I can read faster.  And yet when done I always find myself in the same position; I know I enjoyed the journey but have a huge list of things to pick apart.  Is this fair?  Am I being too critical?  Why do I keep reading a series that I consistently rate with three stars?

And the more I think on it I have come to a simple conclusion.  I keep reading the series because the author does many of the “big things” right (characters and the unique world specifically), and my quibbles are mostly with the nagging little details.

Nagging little details.  The story so far has followed Cathy as she fights against the patriarchal hell that is the Nether, an in-between land that the Fae use as a little political playground.  And that is cool, and her fight makes up the bulk of the book and is interesting and I find myself cheering and etc.  But I still can’t figure out what the hell it is about the Nineteenth century that this whole magical society decided to adopt.  Why does Cathy  need to fight this fight in the first place in a magical society that seems to lack none of the necessities?  Cathy’s fight for equality for all the poor repressed citizens of the Nether is admirable and enjoyable, but by the end of the book I found many of the steps she took to be too easy.  I am not sure I ever doubted her abilities, never felt any pressure for her.  Worse, many, though by no means all, of those she rescues seem like hostages in a video game, no mind of their own until she touches them and they suddenly become people.  You know, with feelings and desires of their own?

Nagging little details.  A secondary storyline had to do with Max, an arbiter charged with keeping a treaty that STILL hasn’t been explained, three books in.  He is also followed around by a Disney sidekick, a gargoyle, who is supposed to be carrying his soul do to circumstances in the first book.  Because of this Max is supposed to be emotionless.  But I don’t know if I ever have been convinced that the grudges he holds verse the puppets of the nether is anything other than buried emotion.  Worse, I want to kick that gargoyle.  Goody goody thing that he is, he still is supposed to be nothing more than an animated block of stone with Max’s soul.  When did he become a dog?  Several times he is seen “sniffing,” and then finding stuff.  Do concrete blocks with human souls gain the super power of smell?

Nagging little details.  Sam makes up the third portion of the story so far, at first nothing more than a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We watched his marriage fall apart, got a few cryptic messages about a connection to Iron, and saw him attempt and fail to rescue some prisoners of one of the Fae, a Lord Poppy (who is also Cathy’s Patroon, or puppet master, or whatever one wants to call him).  But the simple matter is I have not cared about him one lick through the first two books; he is a mopey guy who hasn’t really added to the story.  Well big changes are coming and suddenly he is a man of destiny.  That is fine by itself, but there was a whole lot of narrative convenience once he learns a few things, and the speed of his transformation didn’t work for me.  Your mileage may vary on that one.

And once again I find these things bugging me more than they should, because they are hidden in a very enjoyable story.  More and more I am seeing the series as a soap opera.  Book three wrapped up some plot lines that started in book one and opened a few more that will no doubt take a few more to resolve.  Some of the nagging little problems I had after book one have been rectified (such as thinking Cathy was the first women in the Nether to think about her place in society, when in fact we have learned a lot of curses and other nefarious plots kept the forward thinkers apart and/or hidden).  Some links from book one still have not been explained, such as what the sorcerers’ place in the world really is and why the Fae would ever agree to a treaty limiting their reach.

So going back to the questions at the beginning.  I keep reading because I enjoy it, and recognize it for what it is.  Slightly flawed, but so far worth the ride.  Nice to see some resolution, though I was kind of hoping this was the last of a trilogy rather than the middle of what may be a never ending series.  Newman has continued to keep me invested in the story, especially Cathy’s fight against the system she was born in and the political fighting between the Fae.

3 Stars