The Fold

January 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foldThe Fold by Peter Clines

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I bought this book around when it came out. I didn’t get to it right away, and I heard a handful of folks talk about how it wasn’t very good. Disappointed (I loved 14), I set it aside to get to it whenever. Jump ahead two years, and I get a text from a friend: “How is it you haven’t read The Fold yet? Didn’t you love 14?” So here we are.

I think I understand why I heard the poor reviews from other readers: They hadn’t read 14 before. It had been long enough since I read the book that I didn’t realize the two books were connected until I did a search for Aleksander Koturovic to see if there was some historical connection, and saw he had been a key character in 14. From there, I started doing some more research, and yep, they’re connected. The Fold isn’t a sequel or even a prequel, but it’s set in the same universe as 14, and finding the connections was half the fun of the book.

The other half of the fun was the story itself. The characters are vivid and likable, the plot is engaging, and the style is easy. It flows like a river across a flat stone, which was refreshing, considering that my last two non-Star Wars reads have felt dull and lifeless. I saw that I wrote about feeling giddy while reading 14, and I had that same feeling here. It reminds me that I haven’t read the Ex-Heroes series yet, even though all five books are waiting for me at home.

14 was one of those books where I told people to read it, without knowing anything about it. The Fold is another of those books, but now that I’ve told you it’s related to 14, I suppose that’s a spoiler of its own. If you haven’t read 14, go do that, and then come back to The Fold. If you have, then I have to ask you what my friend asked me: “How is it you haven’t read The Fold yet?”

Started: October 24, 2017
Finished: October 27, 2017

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Episode IV: A New Hope

January 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hopeEpisode IV: A New Hope by George Lucas

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I’ve watched Star Wars at least thirty times. I know the story backward and forward. I’ve even listened to the audio play produced for NPR, which uses some of the unused material from the script. That material is included in the novelization, which makes sense, given that the book was published a few months before the movie was released. The problem is that this novelization doesn’t bring anything new to the Star Wars experience for me.

The good news is that it has a lot to offer folks who are just getting into the expanded universe. That new material isn’t necessary, but it gives us more context into the character of Luke, the long reach of the Empire, and the importance of the Rebellion. What it doesn’t give us is insight into any of the characters. Lucas doesn’t give us much in the way of the characters, narratively; what we know about them is what we see in the movies, through their facial expressions and reactions, through their excitement and passion. Written out, a lot of that is missing.

This isn’t the first novelization I’ve read in the EU, so I know this isn’t the fault of Lucas, necessarily. Other writers were able to capture the characters and make them lively; here, they feel flat and listless. Even when Luke sees Obi-Wan cut down by Vader (uh, spoiler), he reacts in the way one would expect, but then he’s on to the next thing. Granted, this is how the movie approaches the scene, too, but here it feels even worse, since Foster doesn’t show us enough of his response to believe it.

(Oh, yeah, this book was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. This is about as much of a secret as Joe Hill being Stephen King’s son, but there it is, just to avoid confusion.)

It’s also interesting to see the differences between the story and the final cut of the movie. The dialogue is different enough that people who really know the movie are going to find some unexpected turns of phrase, but it’s also weird that in the novel, Luke is Blue Five instead of Red Five. It’s nothing that breaks the story, but “Red Five, standing by” is one of the most iconic lines from the movie, so it’s hard not to have a “Wha?” moment. What’s cool is the prologue, where Foster expands on the Empire, giving us a bit of history and context into the past. He names Palpatine and summarizes the fall of the Republic. According to legend, this was backstory written by Foster, since Lucas didn’t have a firm idea of what the history would be, but when it came time to write that history for the prequels, he used a bit of those ideas on which to hang his story.

So, the novelization isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either. Foster’s style is a bit too dry for me, but the story doesn’t feel like a seventies story, nor is it as listless as the Lando Calrissian novels by L. Neil Smith. It’s just not a novel that sings, and while I haven’t seen as many of those in the EU, I feel like the first book in the Star Wars universe would have a bit more meat to it than this one did.

Started: October 16, 2017
Finished: October 19, 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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Death Troopers

December 19, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

troopersDeath Troopers by Joe Schreiber

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I’ve given Schreiber a hard time in the past. It’s not that I don’t think he’s deserving of it (don’t forget that in Chasing the Dead, he had his protagonist attacked by giant lobsters in her car), but while reading Death Troopers I realized that he’s a pretty good writer. He doesn’t fall into the trap that some authors use, where they tell us what a character is feeling; instead he describes what they’re feeling, and pretty accurately. He’s a good storyteller, too, which is pretty necessary when you write a zombie novel set in the Star Wars universe. This was apparently a big issue for the hardcore Star Wars fans, but I thought it was a fun read.

Schreiber populates his novel with the right kinds of characters for a zombie story — those who doubt and those who accept, those who take advantage of the situation, and those who turn out to be heroes, and those who sacrifice themselves for the rest of the group — but the progression from doubting to accepting is pretty fast. Also, near the end of the novel, one of the antagonists has a change of heart, which was unexpected, which would have been fine, except it remains unexplained. Why have a character turn around and save characters he was forcing out of escape pods 150 pages earlier? I don’t mean that rhetorically, either: Why? That explanation was completely missing from the story.

Speaking of sections of the story that make you ask “Why?”, there’s the fact that Han Solo and Chewbacca show up halfway through the story. It feels too much like fan service over storytelling, especially when this is supposed to have happened close to the events that put the two characters on Tatooine in Star Wars. They don’t even have the Millennium Falcon with them at the time of the story, since the book takes place in a prison ship.

Still, I had a fun time reading the book, but I didn’t expect it to be a groundbreaking novel, either. Fans of horror should love it (two of the tertiary characters are named Phibes and Quatermass, so there’s a lot there for the fans to discover), though they may want to start with Red Harvest. That book follows Death Troopers in publication order, but it also lays the groundwork for what creates the zombies. They make a decent duology, but I can see why people looking for traditional Star Wars stories don’t like them.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 16, 2017

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Off Rock

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

rockOff Rock by Kierna Shea

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Jimmy Vik works for an outer space mining company, drilling what needs drilling out of asteroids and such. His ex-girlfriend is his boss, which complicates things when he finds a vein of gold in his mining shaft, and comes up with the grand idea to smuggle it off the rock to live high on the hog. The problem is, smuggling something off the rock is a lot more complicated than it looks, and as every potential smuggler already knows, it never goes as planned.

Off Rock is a heist novel, and pretty much nothing else. Shea tells an engaging, ripping tale, but he sacrifices characterization and theme for his plot. Near the end of the book, he tries to give the story a point, but it feels clumsy and forced, and it’s ultimately unnecessary, since the story doesn’t require one. We’re simply along for the ride, and aren’t looking for anything deeper than “Will he pull this off?”

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, Leela, is a bit troublesome, not because she’s his boss, but because her character takes an about-face near the end of the story. There’s a reason for it, but it doesn’t feel true, and it feels like Shea forced it in there because he needed it, to give the story a (kind of) happy ending. The other secondary characters also serve their purpose, but feel inserted into the events, again because Shea needed it, not because the characters were significant enough on their own.

The beginning of the book has a lot of info-dumps through dialogue, making the characters sound unnatural. I work in IT, so I get that some conversations require passing along a lot of technical information, but somehow these didn’t feel realistic. Beyond that, the dialogue focuses on the heist, and is less necessary to relay a lot of information to the reader (or I just stopped noticing it), but it was tough getting into the book at the start.

Regardless, Off Rock is a romp of a read. It doesn’t try to be anything else than fun, and even if Shea gets a little bogged down in the snarkiness and irreverence of his characters, he still succeeds. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of book that encourages me to read everything else he’s read, but if you’re looking for the science fiction equivalent of a beach read, Off Rock is it.

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The Stone Sky

November 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

skyThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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It took me longer than expected to finish this book. Part of it was me not wanting it to end, part of it was a beginning that confused as much as enlightened, and part of it was me reading it around the 2017 eclipse weekend (I had big plans). I find that to be fitting, since the book is, in part, about reuniting the Moon with the Earth, and smack dab in the middle of it, I sat down to watch the Moon put on a show for the Earth.

Along with reuniting the Moon and the Earth, The Stone Sky is about reuniting Essun and her daughter, Nassun. Readers of the trilogy thus far won’t be surprised by that revelation (it was inevitable), but it’s a nice thematic parallel. Two years have passed since Essun’s husband murdered their son and took Nassun away, and the two have seen (and instigated) a lot of change during that time. Much of The Stone Sky passes before we see that reunion, but everything that has happened since that moment has brought us to that point, and that point is when we learn the answers to all of our questions.

The ending was surprisingly emotionless. I was so invested in both characters, hoping they would find each other again, that when it finally happened I was surprised to find it so anticlimactic. I didn’t get choked up or teary-eyed; it was just another series of events unfolding in the story. I don’t know if that’s intentional on Jemisin’s part or if I was too disconnected with the book (other reviews I read suggest I’m in the minority).

As I mentioned above, their reunion is inevitable, not just because Jemisin leads us there, but also because the story requires it. The book (and the series) is about family and loyalty, and to not bring the two characters together would be a disservice to the reader. She still surprises us, which is also inevitable; the story hasn’t developed using the usual tropes and devices seen in fantasy fiction, so why would one assume to see it end that way?

I had to think long and hard about how to rate this book. By itself, the book isn’t as effective as the first two, but as part of a larger story (which is how the author sees the trilogy), it works well. My first thought was three stars, since I liked it but didn’t really like it, but I couldn’t dismiss how much the first two books played into the conclusion. Then I waffled over four and five stars, because while the last book in the series lacked the emotional connection the first two books, the series overall came to a smart conclusion with some heavy themes. In the end, I would rate this 4.5 stars, rounded up because Jemisin did something amazing with the whole trilogy.

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All These Worlds

November 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

worldsAll These Worlds by Dennis E. Taylor

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From the first book in the Bobiverse, I had some qualms about the whole premise. I hadn’t planned on reading anything past that book, but the ending had enough questions left unanswered that I persevered. I didn’t find much more to like in the second book, but having come that far, I figured I should finish it out and read the third book. This is a long way of saying I wasn’t expecting much out of All These Worlds.

The books have been easy to read, and are strangely compelling, despite that they feel so distant. The stories have felt emotionless, with things happening so quickly (and sometimes off screen) that it’s hard to feel a connection with any of the characters. It doesn’t help that Bob and his progeny have this smartassery about them that gets tiresome over the course of one book, much less three. All These Worlds has the first moment in the trilogy where I felt like I was having an emotional response, but then Taylor had to go and ruin it by ending it with one of the Bobs saying “Live long and prosper.”

All of the characters in this series — even those outside of the Bobs — have similar voices. They’re all witty and sarcastic, but ultimately charming. Even the human characters who are set up as foils have these characteristics, which pushes credibility. And everyone — everyone — chuckles. They don’t titter, or guffaw, or laugh; they chuckle. For some reason, this started to annoy the crap out of me near the end of the book.

My biggest complaint with the second book was that it was so repetitious, with the Bobs constantly on the move to search and adapt worlds for human life. There’s an element to that here, too, but since most of the settlements have been established, the story focuses on the main threat of the entire series — the Others. There’s much more at stake with this book, and it helps anchor the book and give it a focus, which the previous book didn’t have. It still has several plots interacting at once (possibly meandering through time? At one point I think one of the chapters jumped back a decade or two), but the threat of the Others prevails.

There were other subplots that kept my interest, but in looking back, I realize they play little to no role in the battle with the Others. I think Taylor is trying to establish the different personalities of the Bobs by giving them a focus outside of the larger threat, but they seem useless in retrospect. The cast of Bobs has grown large (a couple of hundred, I believe; regardless, it’s large enough that Taylor didn’t bother with a family tree this time around), and Taylor clearly wants to end the stories of the most prominent Bobs that began the story, but it winds up making the book feel unfocused by comparison.

The book is fine, and has a strong ending that fits the trilogy, but it doesn’t change my opinion of the overall series. Remove the smartassery, create characters that feel more distinct, and expand on the themes of the trilogy, and this could have been a classic science fiction novel. As it is, though, it feels amateurish, despite its readability.

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Paper Girls: Volume 3

November 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

paper3Paper Girls: Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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I’ve come to realize that I like the potential behind Paper Girls more than I do the actual story. This isn’t a bad thing; like Saga, it’s full of ideas that, taken to their conclusions, could be epic, but right now it still feels like Vaughan is scrambling to figure out what to do with his ideas. In this volume, the four paper girls find themselves in prehistoric times helping someone who could be a paper girl herself, if only she weren’t a few hundred thousand years before their time.

Oddly, the most compelling of all the volumes so far is the first one, when the four girls find each other, before all the weirdness kicks in. By now, I would have expected the exposition to settle, and for the story proper to begin. Instead, it feels like Vaughan is still playing out the exposition. I suppose it’s possible that we are in the story proper here, but it’s hard to determine, since we’re still getting new characters and new plot points orbiting the main characters. Plus, I’m still not sure what it is the four girls are trying to accomplish.

This isn’t to say I don’t like the title, though. The four main characters are likable (mostly), and the weirdness suggests a lot of what’s to come, but I’m beginning to lose patience with the story. I get the feeling the plot might become apparent with the next volume, but I thought that about Volume 2, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m not ready to give up on it just yet.

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Dark Forces: Jedi Knight

November 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

knightDark Forces: Jedi Knight by William C. Dietz

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As the title suggests, Jedi Knight is a retelling of the events from the LucasArts video game Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. This isn’t bad, necessarily (the story was praised during its release), but for anyone who already knows the story, it’s a bit redundant. I’m a mix of both audiences, really; it’s been so long since I’ve played the game, I don’t recall many of the details.

The thing is, after listening to the audio presentation, I still don’t recall many of the details. I think this is because the stories in most first-person shooters are just a means to give the player purpose, with the central focus of the story being on the player guiding the game. Jedi Knight may have been somewhat ground-breaking for its story, but that’s not to say it can stand on its own.

Kyle Katarn is now a Jedi, still on the tail of Jerec, the dark Jedi who murdered his father. His pursuit takes him to the Valley of the Jedi, where a great battle took place over a thousand years ago and trapped the souls of over one-hundred Jedi and Sith. What’s cool about the reference is that, having read the books in chronological order, I already know about that battle. It featured in the Darth Bane trilogy, even though the story of Jedi Knight came out almost ten years before.

One of the key elements of the game was the ability to develop Force powers, either light or dark, which played into how the game progressed. The ending of the game split between the two, so playing the light side would grant one ending, while the dark side revealed another. Here, the writer(s?) decide to go with the light side ending. I’m fine with that choice (I imagine that’s how the game designers wanted to steer the players), but having this story told with that choice in place limits the potential of the story from the game. I don’t see a way out of it, unless the writers went with a Choose Your Own Adventure or Clue style to the story.

Like the previous audio dramatizations, the voice acting is sub-par, the dialogue is cheesy, and the events move too quickly. It gets worse when the Bouncers hit the stage, sounding like Pee Wee Herman on helium. Again, part of me wishes I had read the graphic novels instead of listening to these productions.

The story here isn’t terrible, but neither is it memorable. I get that Dietz wanted to delve more deeply into the story of Kyle Katarn, but the whole arc, from his days with the Empire to his confrontation with Jerec, don’t resonate with the same kind of importance as that of any of the other central characters from the Expanded Universe. In the end, it’s that resonance that has made the other stories so timeless, and that characteristic is missing here.

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Dark Forces: Rebel Agent

November 14, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

agentDark Forces: Rebel Agent by William C. Dietz

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I got confused at the start of this presentation, since it began with Morgan Katarn’s story, told from his perspective. At first, I thought I had confused the father and the son, but no, I remembered Kyle Katarn is the character from the Dark Forces series. Then I thought I had mixed up the order of the audio dramatizations, but after checking, I saw I was going in the right direction. By that time, a good chunk of the first part of the story was done, and I had to go back and start over because I was too distracted to get anything out of it.

In actuality, this story takes place five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, though it starts in flashback before Soldier for the Empire. Katarn is still a not-100%-trustworthy member of the Rebel Alliance, which is unusual, since by now the Empire is on the decline. I mean, five years on, and Mon Mothma still doesn’t trust the guy completely? OK.

Speaking of Mon Mothma, this series is lousy with fan service, since all the well-known characters from the movies show up. Yoda appeared in Soldier for the Empire, and now Luke, Leia, and Mon Mothma all show up, too. (If I’m remembering correctly, R2-D2 has a cameo, too, by way of Leia. It’s been a few days since I listened to it, and I might be mixing it up with one of the other books in the series.) On the one hand, the Force can bring all these folks together; on the other hand, it makes the Expanded Universe that much smaller, since everything seems to revolve around these five-to-ten characters.

Since this is an audio presentation, it suffers from the same problems as other dramatizations: things being spoken aloud that people wouldn’t normally say; things happening too quickly to stay under a certain time limit; dialogue that works well on paper, but sounds cheesy and insincere when spoken aloud. Dietz’s original story might not have these issues, but the audio drama had me rolling my eyes at parts of it.

I’d like to say this chapter fills in more of Katarn’s backstory, but nothing much happens. We hear again (and again) about his father being killed by the Empire, so narratively there’s little progression. The showdown between Katarn and Jerec comes closer, but nothing much is resolved. It’s a buildup to the third chapter, and winds up being so insubstantial that it tries to float away. The audiobooks are two hours each, so I’m tearing through them on my drive to work, but I’m not sure I would recommend these stories, even to fans of the franchise and the video game.

 

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