The Ruin of Angels

January 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

angelsThe Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

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I should state up front that I’m not the target audience for this book. I enjoyed the first couple of books in the Craft Sequence, but the more I read of it, the more tedious I found it. Reusing the characters seemed like a cool idea in theory, but not in practice; it felt like the characterization got lazier with each book, and I couldn’t find myself vested in any of the characters in the stories.

Six books into the series, The Ruin of Angels is no different. Gladstone gets rid of the told-out-of-order sequence of the books and starts writing them all in chronological order, but he brings in two characters he’s already used in previous novels — Kai Pohala and Tara Abernathy. He also avoids the whole soul-as-money and magic-as-justice tropes on which he hung the first five books, which was a relief, but it didn’t make much difference to me. I didn’t feel engaged in any part of the story. It took a long time for anything to get going with the plot, which didn’t help matters.

Like all the books, there were a lot of neat ideas, but the characters were flat, the narrative was unengaging, and the plot was pretty boring. Gladstone has his fans, who I’m sure will love this and fawn over the book, but I found myself just wanting to be done with it. As a friend of mine put it, the shine is off the apple, but for me, the apple is bruised and attracting fruit flies. I won’t be returning to the series.

Started: September 23, 2017
Finished: October 15, 2017

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All Systems Red

January 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

redAll Systems Red by Martha Wells

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Meet Murderbot. Murderbot is a half-robot, half-organic construct that’s been hired to assist an excavation crew doing a survey on a new planet. Murderbot has disabled the governor in itself, allowing it to do such things as ignore direct orders, skip scheduled upgrades, and not follow its own directives. In short, Murderbot has become a sentient entity without any restraints. Luckily, “Murderbot” doesn’t accurately describe itself.

This novella is an intriguing look at human/robot relations, as told from the perspective of the robot. There may be more to Murderbot’s organic side than this story lets on (it doesn’t have complete recall on some events that happened in its past), but the way the story is told, it feels like it’s more robot than organic. That being said, this is the first in a series of novellas, so maybe that’s something we’ll learn in a future volume. Regardless, Murderbot has an empathetic side, as well as other emotions that her human co-workers didn’t expect to see.

I’m a reader of the webcomic Questionable Content, and as I was reading this story, I kept picturing Bubbles as Murderbot. As such, it made me envision Murberbot as female, even though there’s nothing in the story to support it. Due to that connection, or possibly to the fact that the author is female, Murderbot felt female to me throughout the story. I don’t know if other readers got that feeling out of the story; I’d be curious to know.

The story is set in a science-fictional world, but at its heart, it’s a mystery. The story opens part of the way into the excavation, and we learn that a good chunk of their information has gone missing from their files. At that point, the characters have to learn who’s behind the sabotage, before things turn deadly. The structure of the story feels like a whodunnit, and I see one other review has labeled it as a hard-boiled story, which I get, though I don’t necessarily agree.

Either way, this is a sharp story with an engaging narrator and likable supporting characters. It doesn’t quite reach the four-star level with me, but that’s likely due to having high expectations going into the story. All Systems Red is getting tremendous hype, not unjustly, but I was expecting something a bit more wowie-zowie out of it based on it all. I’ll definitely read the rest of the series, though.

Started: October 11, 2017
Finished: October 11, 2017

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The Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom

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

doomThe Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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Something big happens in A Certain Doom. I won’t spoil it for you, since that “something big” seems to be the point of the entire arc. Other things happen outside of that “something big”, but they seem inconsequential compared to it, not just in importance but also in a narrative sense. There’s a sub-plot regarding infighting, but it’s handled quickly, as if Kirkman were ready to get to the “something big”. There was a lot I liked about this volume (including, believe it or not, Negan), but I wish the events had received as much attention as their “something big”.

While reading this volume, I realized how well this comic works in black-and-white. Aside from giving the mood of the story a darker edge, it also helps make the blood and gore more effective. Were this presented in full color, with bright red blood and mottled grey corpses, it would come across as garish and exploitative; in black-and-white, it’s muted, making us focus more on how it affects the characters than the gore itself.

It’s hard to talk about this arc without giving away the “something big”, but it satisfies. The most significant thing to happen in this book, narratively speaking, is the character growth, though it occurs more in the secondary characters than where you would expect it to happen. As always, Kirkman ends the story in such a way that I want to keep reading, and since the series is already up to 172 issues, I figure it will keep me reading for a long time.

Started: October 10, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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Bird Box

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

boxBird Box by Josh Malerman

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So many books, so many different ways to hear about them. I have so many now that I can’t remember how Bird Box came to my attention. A friend of mine recently asked how it was I hadn’t actually read this one yet, so I bumped it up my list, and I’m glad I did. This is an outstanding book in a lot of ways.

The premise is a good one: Something has happened in the world, and it drives people to kill other people and then themselves. It’s somehow tied to something people see, so in response to the threat, people learn to live inside, with their doors closed and their windows covered. When they do have to venture outside, they do so with their eyes closed, or blindfolded. The story opens on Malorie, a mother of two four-year-olds who finds herself having to go outside to save herself and her children.

Malerman sets the tone of this story immediately, in the first chapter. Aside from capturing the mood and the atmosphere of this kind of story, he also puts the reader immediately off balance by making his readers pay attention to understand the setting and the characters. He doesn’t explain it all immediately; instead, he introduces to Malorie and then tells us her story through (mostly) alternating chapters between the present and past. He tells us this story in a style that uses short, sharp sentences, in the present tense. It creates a feeling of immediacy, and keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace.

Bird Box has shadows of The Road, in that they’re both about parents trying to protect their children in a bleak, desolate world. They’re hardly similar, though, since Malorie’s approach to parenthood is so different from the father in The Road. She uses fear and pain to reinforce the lessons she has to teach her children, making her either the worst or best mother in the world. Her methods are harrowing, but so is the world they live in, and she does it all in an effort to protect the children. We may not agree with what she does to raise them, but we at least understand why she does it.

Like most post-apocalyptic horror, Bird Box focuses on who the real monsters are in situations like these: the survivors. It’s a common theme, and while it works, it’s somewhat tired. I don’t fault the author (we are, after all, the worst monsters because we choose to be horrible to each other instead of it just being our nature), but I would like to see a story in this genre take a different approach. How Malerman approaches the human monster in his story works well, even if the way he sets it up is a bit clunky.

The ending is also a bit clunky, partly because Malerman attempts to inject some hope into his story at the end. It doesn’t come easy for Malorie, but it feels like everything is wrapped up too neatly for this kind of story. I can appreciate it for being the breath we take at the end of a long swim upstream, but it’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the story. I would have preferred more ambiguity, a hint at the hope to come instead of the full-on happy (-ish) ending we get here. If it had ended before Malorie had all of her questions answered, it would have been a more effective ending.

Those issues aside, though, this is a novel that works remarkably well. It conveys a mood like few other books I’ve read, and it maintains a taut tension from beginning to end. Fans of horror in general should like it, but I would also recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Road. They’re different in lots of ways, but their similarities can’t be denied.

Started: September 29, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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The Neighbors

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

neighborsThe Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn

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Ah, Ahlborn. I discovered her earlier this year through The Pretty Ones, and then went back and read Seed so I could see how her writing progressed. Both were extraordinary stories; they weren’t necessarily original, but they were engaging, effective, and well written. A new author entered my reading world, so of course I got her next book.

That book was The Neighbors, and it’s a huge disappointment. It starts out well enough, reading like it’s a new take on a “something isn’t right in the village” story when a desperate young man moves into his friend’s house in an affluent neighborhood, but it falls apart quickly. For one thing, Ahlborn uses multiple points of view for the story, when those kinds of story work best from the viewpoint of one person as they’re trying to make sense of things. Instead, we know early on what’s happening, and have to watch the main character make dumb decisions that put him further and further into trouble.

To be fair, the main character isn’t the only one making dumb decisions; all of the principle characters do. Red and Harlow, the neighbors, don’t make a lick of sense in any way, from their motivations down to how they could afford the lifestyle they live. Mick, their official neighbor, was defined enough to be a pothead, so that explained some choices, but Andrew (or Andy, or Drew, depending on … well, I’m not sure; his name changed a lot throughout the story) makes the dumbest choices of all by going as far as he does with the neighbors. It strained disbelief, enough so that I kept looking for some supernatural connection to explain it all, but no, this is a straight-up, could-happen-in-real-life horror story that doesn’t make much sense.

It doesn’t help that Ahlborn uses flashbacks liberally, and doesn’t segue from the present to the past and back again very well. I didn’t get lost going from one to the other, but the jumps were always abrupt. Seed used flashbacks, too, but they weren’t as jarring. Plus, during those flashbacks, Ahlborn tells us a lot about how Red and Harlow feel, but she doesn’t show us that emotion. I didn’t notice more telling that showing in the present-day part of the story, but the flashbacks definitely had that problem.

Seed was self-published, but didn’t read like one; The Neighbors was published traditionally, but reads like it was self-published. I know Ahlborn can write some great stories, but this book isn’t one of them.  Other reviews suggest this novel is the anomaly of her oeuvre, that her later books are as effective as the rest of her work I’ve read, so I won’t give up on her, but it was a struggle finishing this book. I wouldn’t recommend The Neighbors at all.

Started: September 23, 2017
Finished: September 28, 2017

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Wolverine

December 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wolverineWolverine by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller

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I came into comics too late to read Wolverine right off the shelf, but man, did I know about it. It was a grail title of mine, since I loved Wolverine’s character, but it was always too expensive for me to buy to read. At some point, I wound up with the first issue, but I never got any further than that with the story. That first issue starts out strong, though, with an opening line as iconic as “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.”

From there, we follow Logan hunting a bear that’s been left for dead, but has instead gone on its own killing rampage. He finds the bear, kills it, and expresses remorse over the act since it had been driven to it; then, he tracks down the man who poisoned it but didn’t kill it, fights him, and sends him to jail without any regrets. It sets the tone of his character, and shows him being more animal than man. In short, it defines all that is Wolverine.

Then, it moves to Japan. Mariko is Logan’s love, back in Japan and not accepting or sending letters. He goes to Japan to track her down, and becomes enmeshed in some crime drama related to Mariko’s new husband. That’s the point where the story goes off the rails and stops making sense. The Hand is involved, but it’s hard to tell what’s driving the crime gangs, and what their business actually is. For the story, Claremont only makes it clear that they’re criminals, and organized. I guess he feels like this is all we need to know.

What we do need to know, apparently, is Logan’s backstory. We get it at the start of each issue. In four or five panels on one page, we get his name, hear about his mutant healing abilities, his adamantium-laced skeleton, and his claws. Even at the time of the title’s publication, people knew who Wolverine was, and he was already a fan-favorite. Readers didn’t need it reiterated with every issue, but that’s what we get.

Released back in 1982, Wolverine is a comic that shows its age. At its time, it might have been a little progressive; it seems like Claremont did some research into Japanese culture instead of just populating the story with offensive stererotypes, and having a female assassin might have bucked some trends at the time. Thirty-five years later, the culturalism comes across as stereotypical, and the female characters are little more than story-dressing. Mariko doesn’t have any depth outside of her being a daughter, or Logan’s love, and the assassin, Yuriko, is inconsistent. During a fight, she’s cut by a sword, and Logan notes that she doesn’t make a sound, because she’s tough like that; later, she’s threatened by a crime boss, who grabs and twists her wrist, and she cries out, saying, “You’re hurting me!” That she falls in and out of a relationship with Logan only reinforces that inconsistency.

I hadn’t known Frank Miller had done the art in this book until I started reading it, and it’s sufficient. It feels kinetic, and isn’t done in such a way that things aren’t clear (in fact, there’s a scene where, mid-fight, Logan pulls an arrow from his arm to use against another assassin, and it’s done subtly enough that it’s not obvious, nor does it fade into the background), but parts of it made me laugh. Every time Logan snikts his claws, each one has to gleam in the light, and there were times when his mouth would be wide open in a yell (the better to show off those animalistic canines, my dear), only to be saying one word, quietly. The artwork didn’t always match the mood of the story.

I’ll freely admit my expectations were too high for Wolverine, but man, did it let me down. It’s too much a product of its time to hold up well so many years later.

Started: September 28, 2017
Finished: September 28, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen

December 28, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

swords19The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen by K.J. Parker

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The way this chapter flows, it feels like it’s the end of The Two of Swords. Things are wrapped up (and, finally, explained) in a way that leaves me satisfied, with major characters reaching the ends of their arcs and machinations seemingly concluded, so this feels like the place to end the story. The thing is, I ordered all of the remaining parts of the book back in April, and those show four chapters to go. Granted, that was April, and who knows what could have happened between then and now?

I think I would have gone into this chapter with a different mindset had I known this was going to be the final chapter. Instead, I went in thinking things would be drawn together in anticipation of the conclusion, so I never felt like that was going to be it. By the time I finished it, though, it was pretty clear this was the end of the story.

It’s been an interesting journey. Throughout the story, it was difficult to determine what was truth and what wasn’t. The layers of subterfuge are many, and so interconnected that it almost takes a spreadsheet to keep up with what’s a double-cross or quadruple-cross. I may have been able to keep up with the characters more had I been reading the story in collected formats, and had I been able to read them back-to-back from start to finish. I was actually surprised I could remember enough details from chapter to chapter to keep up with everything.

Before this book, my exposure to Parker was through his novellas, and those tend to read as stories that lead up to an unseen conclusion, sort of like The Sixth Sense, but with fewer ghosts and more humor. I didn’t expect him to follow that structure here, so I was excited to see how his longer stories would develop, and I wasn’t disappointed. I plan to read the rest of his fiction within the next year or so, and I hope I haven’t messed it up by starting with his most recent works and then going back to the beginning. At the very least, I look forward to seeing him develop the shared universe of these books.

Started: September 26, 2017
Finished: September 26, 2017

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Shadow Games

December 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

shadowShadow Games by Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

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The premise of Shadow Games is that a superstar singer has to hire a bodyguard to keep her safe from obsessive fans and other threats while she’s on tour. So, yeah, this is The Bodyguard set in the universe of Star Wars, in what is the most unlikely meshing of stories I’ve yet seen in the Expanded Universe.

Amazingly, the story isn’t that bad. It’s not the most exciting novel I’ve read so far, but it moves as well as any of the other Star Wars books, and touches on enough of the usual tropes one would expect to find in the book. The downside of those usual tropes is that it becomes obvious what’s really going on when the bodyguard is sensing the singer isn’t telling him everything he needs to know. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you can’t figure it out by the halfway point, maybe you’re new to the world of Star Wars.

I wouldn’t rank Shadow Games among the worst the EU has to offer, but neither is it the best. That’s a sentence that perfectly illustrates the saying, “damning with faint praise”, but this isn’t exactly a book to get too excited about. Fans of Reaves might like it, since it follows his usual style.

Started: September 18, 2017
Finished: September 23, 2017

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The Girl with All the Gifts

December 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

giftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

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I was thrilled to find out that M.R. Carey is the same person as Mike Carey, who has written, among other things, The Unwritten, one of my favorite comics series. Once I knew that, I expected a lot out of the book. I was both excited and apprehensive about that, because … well, high expectations and all that.

The weirdest thing about the book is how the publisher tried to distance the book from what it’s about: zombies. Had the book been written in such a way as to make this a surprise reveal halfway through the book, I’d understand, but by the end of the second chapter, it’s clear what’s going on. I get that the market is oversaturated with zombie novels right now, but the story’s strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of its type; why not just embrace it?

The second-weirdest thing about the book (and possibly the dumbest) is that they’re not called zombies in the book. Sure, fine, whatever, The Walking Dead did it, too, but what they’re called in this book are “Hungries”. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming up with this term, and then for it to be distinctive enough for it to stick. Aside from it sounding stupid, it doesn’t make sense from a narrative standpoint, either.

Luckily, these are the worst things about the book. Carey has a natural writing style, enough so that there’s nothing there to take you out of the story. The few times I was interrupted while reading, I had one of those story-drunk moments where I had to consciously shift from the book world back to the real world, I was so deeply into the story.

The main character of the story is Melanie, an intelligent ten-year-old girl who lives in an underground cell and is moved, strapped down in a wheelchair, to a classroom five days a week. The first act of the story is told from her perspective, so we get a look into her life, but we have to make some assumptions about her life and living conditions, since she doesn’t know as much as the other characters in the book. I love that kind of storytelling; it’s almost like a riddle, and I like to see how long it takes me to crack the code.

The other main characters wind up being one of the teachers, a sergeant, a scientist, and a soldier, and at the beginning, they’re all cliches. Carey excels at characterization, though, so they don’t stay that way. In fact, the character arc of the sergeant is fantastic, and might be my favorite part of the story. The second and third acts bring in perspectives from all these characters, and it helps to understand them better, so much so that we come to understand the characters who are supposed to be the antagonists. It’s well done, and strong.

I understand that the ending is polarizing among readers. Some love it, some hate it. I didn’t have a problem with it, namely because as I learned more about what caused the zombies, I didn’t see any other way to end the story. It also followed the main theme of the book, so I didn’t feel like I was cheated by it. On one hand, I understand why folks hated it; on the other hand, I don’t see that Carey had any way to get around it.

The Girl with All the Gifts is an actual original take on the zombie story. It’s hard enough to come up with an original story, period, and to see one in an overused genre is refreshing and exciting. I understand there’s a prequel/equel/sequel to the book, and I’m eager to see what else Carey can do with the idea. I just hope my expectations for that book (which are higher now than before) don’t ruin it for me.

Started: September 20, 2017
Finished: September 21, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen

December 25, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords18The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen by K.J. Parker

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We’re reaching the point of the story where things are winding down, but where things are also fraying in the usual Parker style. It’s hard to tell what’s actually going on, not for lack of clarity, but because there’s so much intrigue happening through the Lodge that it’s hard to tell what’s happening at their command and what’s being said to happen through their command. Telamon is caught in the middle of it all, struggling to figure out where her loyalties lie. Axio and Oida, of course, don’t help her understand it much, since they’re as much at odds with each other as the Belot brothers.

This is a lengthier chapter, namely because we learn more about the instability of the Lodge as the war appears to be drawing to a close. I’ll admit I got a little lost in the telling of this chapter, partly because of the way the story bobs and weaves, but also because I kept thinking I should remember more details about parts of it. The story revisits old settings, and I felt like I was missing some significance of some appearances and references, since it’s been so long since I’ve read the other chapters. I’m not willing to go back and re-read them again at this point, but I do plan on getting the printed volumes when they’re released. When I do re-read them, I’ll try to take notes so I can keep everything straight.

For such a complex plot, the chapter-by-chapter release isn’t ideal. I’m surprised I remember as much as I do from the earlier chapters, but that disconnect doesn’t help, especially when so many months have passed between parts two and three. I’m eager to see this through, to see exactly how the Lodge plays in to the plot, and to see how the events ultimately play out. Parker’s novellas bring his plots together well, and if he can bring those same deft skills to The Two of Swords (and why couldn’t he?), I won’t be disappointed. I’m just ready to get there.

Started: September 19, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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