Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Outline by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

I would like to take a few minutes and talk about one of the most interesting novels I’ve come across as of yet. Through its title, Cusk makes a thesis statement – the myth of characters, she might as well say, is holding the novel back.

Faye, the novel’s main character, is strangely absent from it. Though we see events – or conversations, rather – transpire through her eyes, Faye is silent, echoing the characters she engages with but offering little of her own. Each of the ten chapters within Outline takes the form of a conversation, allowing Cusk to penetrate deep within

Faye listens to each of the men and women who speak in these chapters; she does so intently, deflecting questions about herself, choosing instead to ask questions of her own, to dig further in search of understanding of the other, through a mixture of skepticism and insight. In doing so, Faye exposes many of those she speaks as clueless, wilfully blind to their own shortcomings – a stranger she meets in the plane, for example, a Greek businessman who smugly believes he holds no fault in the falling apart of his many romantic relationships; a Greek writer Faye has met before, Angeliki, who has recently come into a great degree of fame in her home country and abroad, and in doing so has detached herself from the woman she used to be previously: ““That was another Angeliki…an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books. Angeliki the famous writer, the feminist of international renown, has never met you before in her life” (Chapter V); and more, and more.

“Faye herself is missing,” writes Clair Wills for the New York Review of Books. “We are being encouraged to think of the trilogy as an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing, or is there only in outline.” It’s an interesting notion – the idea that we are “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filledin around it while the shape itself remained blank.” (Chapter X)

Wills offers another reading:

…in the ingenious parallels with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. People mirror one another, or repeat one another’s noises, like the animals that Faye sets as a topic for a creative writing assignment in Outline. “They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves…the most important thing about an animal, he
said, is that it can’t speak.” The novelist Anne, who is an echo of the novelist Faye, is even described as a parrot: her voice makes “quite a distinctive squawking sound,” and she has green, unblinking eyes.

The Truth Alone by Clair Wills; you can find part of the article here. It’s behind a paywall, sorry!

The novel closes on just such an echo; Faye, correcting the Greek businessman I mentioned earlier, delivers a blow which spells out the truth of this tiny man in enormous letters in the reader’s mind.

What are we, then? Characters, outlines, echoes of that which surrounds us? Perhaps reading Outline will offer you some answer.

Me? I read Outline for my Researching Literature course over three weeks ago; I still can’t stop thinking about it. Two more books await – I’m excited to dive in and mull them over for months and years to come.

Remarkable.

Archive: Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen – Book Review

This review was originally uploaded over on Booknest.eu on Sat, 25 Aug 2018.

I was offered an e-ARC of Finding Baba Yaga in return for an honest review and took it on a whim due to a life-long fascination with the old witch. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I have a great fondness for Slavic and Russian folklore, and when I heard about a reimagining of the Baba, I was all too happy to take a very close look. Novels written in verse are not my usual cup of tea, however — I’m much more comfortable with prose. That said, I’ve been hard at work to familiarise myself with poetry lately, and there’s no mistaking good verse when I read it.

Finding Baba Yaga is marketed as ‘A Short Novel in Verse,’ and it truly is short; it took me no more than an hour and a half to go through its nine chapters. Despite the short amount of time I spent with this novel, it will nevertheless remain with me for a long time to come, with its evocative and beautiful verses, its feisty girls and wicked witch.

What Jane Yolen has shown absolute mastery over is the ability to paint the personality of each character in Finding Baba Yaga with only a few powerful, concise lines. Our protagonist’s character traits we can readily extract from verses, which read as if they were extracted from this young woman’s mind. Natasha’s coming of age story was a joy to follow for this, and many other reasons besides. The themes this book explores are very much relevant to today, and many readers will connect with Natasha.        

Jane Yolen has managed a difficult task in staying true to the folklore image of Baba Yaga while grounding the story of this novel in 21st century America. The Baba is wise and funny, occasionally cruel and even terrifying, and she sees through the characters the book introduces us to with ease.

If you have an appreciation for fairy tales, for the character of Baba Yaga, or for beautiful and evocative verse, you should have a gander at this short novel. Now that Finding Baba Yaga has introduced me to Jane Yolen, I’m looking forward to exploring her works in the field of modern fairy tales and poetry further. Neil Gaiman said about her, “Jane Yolen is a phenomenon: a poet and a mythmaker, who understands how old stories can tell us new things. We are lucky to have her,” and I am beginning to understand why.  You will, too.

Finding Baba Yaga receives 5/5 stars on Goodreads and my hearty recommendation! This is a much shorter review than I usually write, but there’s not too much to say about the book before its release date. I would love to return to it after release, and share with you ladies and gentlemen some of my favourite quotes, analyse what the most powerful verses succeed in accomplishing. A more in-depth look is what this novel will greatly benefit from!

Aw, ain’t that review just the cutest? And short, too!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – Book Review

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Published by: Redhook (Orbit)
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 374
Format: Kindle ebook.
Purchased Copy.

In Alix E. Harrow, I see a respect for stories and words and the power they hold equal to that of Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve followed me awhile, you know the depth of this compliment and if you haven’t, boy, have I a few recommendations for you. But this isn’t about Ursula, it’s about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a novel that takes a magnifying glass and points it at the connection between stories, the worlds they originate from and those who are brave enough to explore them.

January Scaller is a unique girl, though in what way may not become readily apparent. True, she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” as her guardian, Mr. Locke puts it, a child grown up under the wing of this most affluent personage. “A perfectly unique specimen, odd-colored perhaps but not colored” is the description this man, almost a father to her, gives January early on. It is the turn of the 20th century, and this is America – if you needed a reminder of the disquiet, the sheer horrible racist reality of that time, the following sentence, from the view of a seven-year old, encapsulates it well: “I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he [Mr. Locke] said it made me glad I wasn’t.” See, in only a few paragraphs, Harrow has given us a conflicting view of the man January considers a father figure.

Not that January doesn’t have a father; it is merely that he, Julian Scaller, spends most of his time tracking treasures and rare objects for his employer, the very same Mr. Locke. Cornelius Locke is something of a collector, you see, and his home would make even the Smithsonian seem an enthusiast’s collection by comparison. January’s father is his most successful agent, owed to Julian’s ability to follow stories to their source – the stories of people and of places, the origins behind their myths

It is a talent his daughter seems to have inherited, for it isn’t the dotting of a millionaire that makes her “a perfectly unique specimen” but the hunger she feels for stories and adventures, for the world outside the confines of Locke House. Like many of you who now read this review – like me – January escapes the tedium of her everyday reality through novels – penny dreadfuls and adventure stories, the horror and excitement of the grotesque. And when, on her seventeenth birthday, life throws at her the very worst it has to offer, it’s into a book that she escapes.

“…(see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).

The Villains (see the shape of the V, how it places opposites on its two ends, mirroring one another and yet different?) of The Ten Thousand Doors of January range from the universal gothic of the time period to the deeply personal, the kind of villain to kill for – if you’ll pardon the pun.

Its the language, the melodious nature of it that is enchanting to the reader. The masterful control over character voice is equally impressive – a sizable portion of the book adopts the tenets of an epistolary novel, making use of a voice very different from January’s own:

The following monograph concerns the permutations of a repeated motif in world mythologies: passages, portals, and entryways. Such a study might at first seem to suffer from those two cardinal sins of academia—frivolity and triviality—but it is the author’s intention to demonstrate the significance of doorways as phenomenological realities.
At least, that is the book I intended to write, when I was young and arrogant. Instead, I’ve written something strange, deeply personal, highly subjective. I am a scientist studying his own soul, a snake swallowing its own tail.

Harrow’s use of these chapters to tell several stories serves to pace January’s own tale and to create additional tension early on,

I return then to Alix Harrow’s respect of words, captured best in the following: “Words and their meanings have weight in the world of matter, shaping and reshaping realities through a most ancient alchemy.”This is at the heart of our culture, did you know? Our society and we as members of it, invent and reinvent ourselves through the process of the word, written or spoken. Our civilization rests on the written word, where many have perished before, their words once spoken but no longer heard. And this novel gets it, understands the importance of words and their ability to change minds and hearts and the paths we make for ourselves.

There’s also the emotional connection – something deeply individual for all readers – but the novel and its characters, their suffering and loss and love and joy as they realised themselves in full, all this found resonance in me. About mid-way through, I even teared up, and there’s nothing like a few tears to illustrate how deeply you connect to a text on an emotional level.

I’m under the impression that this novel is a standalone – and I would like to praise the author for her choice; The Ten Thousand Doors of January accomplishes in one book what many series don’t manage in three – a complete story from beginning to end, which leaves the door…not sealed, not entirely, but firmly closed.

I give The Ten Thousand Doors of January a score of 5/5 stars; if I were using a ten-point system, I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10 because the ending plays it a little bit too safe and the epilogue, while a wonderful way to say goodbye to the characters, wasn’t necessary. Almost as if Harrow wanted one last moment with these characters – something I can hardly blame her for.

My recommendation goes out to all those among you who are in love with the magic of words and stories, those of you who feel a certain disquiet when they think of having to spend a lifetime going through the motions; The Ten Thousand Doors is for adventurers and travellers and seekers. Take a look – I wager you won’t regret it.

Not my Father's Son by Alan Cumming – Mini Book Review

I love listening to the autobiographies of my favourite actors and comedians. Kevin Hart, John Cleese, Felicia Day, Amanda Palmer, all have put out such engrossing, fascinating reads. I couldn’t get enough of them!

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite this cheery description, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son is a considerably heavier book than some of the abovementioned authors’ works, though if you know Alan’s work and the flamboyant personality he puts forward into the world, you won’t be surprised by the generous helping of humour which follows or precedes each of Alan’s stories about his abusive monster of a father.

The recollections of these memories are interwoven with the events of Alan’s shot for the British series Who Do You Think You Are across a few months in 2010. For those who, like me, might be unfamiliar with these BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are digs into the family history of a famous Brit and reveals herefore-unknown secrets to the guest in question. It’s a fascinating experience for the star around which the episode is centered, as their reaction at finding out old family mysteries are caught on camera. This secondary story is about Alan’s grandfather, Tommy Darling, a soldier in WW2 who died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite some mind-blowing revelations along the way, what struck home with me is that Alan manages to extract important lessons from even the most negative experiences. He doesn’t allow the past to form him into a man as weak as his father; he uses it as fuel to grow and be better. To me, that’s what this book should’ve been and I’ll happily give it my recommendation to any fan of the biography genre.

Mechanicum (Horus Heresy # 09) by Graham McNeill – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Graham McNeill seems to me the most consistent of all the Black Library authors working on the Horus Heresy series. I put aside Dan Abnett here, whose abilities as a writer I hold in high esteem over the excellent Eisenhorn trilogy. This is the third Heresy novel I’ve read written by McNeill, and it’s the third one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

 Here are a few commonalities between all McNeill’s Heresy novels so far:

  • They move the overall plot of the Heresy along. False Gods showed Horus’ corruption; Fulgrim was the most WarHammer 40k book I’ve ever read, with all the gleeful corruption of Chaos and ultraviolence and the purple prose which was most certainly written to fit the ridiculousness that is the Emperor’s Children legion and to play on this whole meta aspect  – and you can take that to the bank, Mr Rob Hayes’ hat! (Love you, Rob)
  • They’ve got characters who do not bore the life out of me. Looking at you, Battle for the Abyss.
  • The narration is always to die for. I needed a third point, okay? These bulletpoints must always go in threes at the least, doncha know?!

These all certainly earn McNeill some credit*. But even if this was the first book of his I’d read in the Heresy series, I’d still have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m conscious of a number of issues which don’t make sense to me either because I’m not steeped deep enough into the lore of this mega-event, or because McNeill and co. didn’t quite think things through when they were moving all the different plot pieces in planning the greater span of the Horus Heresy.  

In terms of characters, there were a few memorable ones. First among them is the Forge Mistress Koriel Zeth, who is a proud bearer of the torch of scientific progress passed down since the Enlightenment, prob’ly, a torch that is doomed to be swallowed by the torrential sea of Chaos during the Heresy. I really liked Zeth for her irreverence towards the nonsense of the Machine God and her ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe, for her willingness to sacrifice everything to stand against zealotry and all the dark horrors seeping into Mars under the direction of Kelbor-Hal, Fabricator General of Mars.

As likable as her but for many different reasons is Dalia Cythera, a girl from Earth who has an intuitive understanding of the workings of technology. Saved from a cruel death sentence for fiddling with technology (making it better) by Zeth, Dalia finds herself in the middle of Mars’s deadliest conflict yet.  Around her is a nice cast of supporting characters, most of them hardly what you’d call deep, since there’s plenty more going on than just Dalia’s storyline. They do their jobs quite well, though, as Dalia ends up fulfilling a dangerous, important role that sadly seems to never be referenced again in any other Warhammer 30-40k book. Aw, shucks.

On the other side of things, we’ve got…MECHS. Pardon, Titan Legions waging war on one another. It’s entertaining and entirely forgettable. Seriously, I finished this one about two months ago and I can’t even recall the name of our PoV character. I liked him! I can remember that much; it’s just that his storyline is your average tale of glory, heroism and sacrifice that’s to be expected of the setting.

My biggest issue with this here book is – all of this is happening on Mars, Earth’s literal back porch  and not until the end of the book does it seem as if anyone is willing to check out what’s going on with the neighbours. And when the big wigs over at Earth do notice something is wrong, they send a punitive force that roughly equates to a five-year-old with a stick coming into the Martian neighbour’s yard to put an end to a drunken brawl. Blimey, this Horus Heresy really is a mess sometimes.

Other than that, The Mechanicum was really quite solid. I was entertained throughout, which is why I’m happy to give it a 3.5/5, which I will helpfully bump up to 4 stars on Goodreads – I’m such a nice guy, aren’t I? It’s a good read, if you can ignore the glaring elephant in the room – our very own planet, Earth.

You might enjoy this one if you like:

  • the Adeptus Mechanicus, aka those weird robot fellas who knock on your door and always try to sell you on “Our Lord and Saviour, the Machine God”;
  • Mechs. Just…mechs;
  • Some real cool characters, actually;
  • and last but certainly not least, loads and loads of heresy;
  • Oh, and more! Prob’ly.

 HEEEEEEEREEEEEEESYYYY

*What’s with me and finance today? I still can’t live down The Dragon’s Bankerby Scott Warren. Now there’s a fun fantasy if you need one!  Oh, also, if you want to read my thoughts on some of the other Horus Heresy books, you can check my blog out, The Grimoire Reliquary. They’re not reviews, per se but I recall complaining loudly about some of the novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Book Review

What’s there to say about this one that hasn’t been said before?

Vonnegut is among the quintessential American authors, someone who, despite writing science fiction, transcended the stigmata of SF without difficulty, entered popular American consciousness and hasn’t left it since. Its message strongly abhors the very notion of war, decries the brutalities of it and relates the horrors of the Second World War in bloodcurdling detail. It’s not an easy book to read or listen to, not even with James Franco’s voice relating the events Billy Pilgrim goes through. Billy Pilgrim, unstuck through time, going back to World War 2 and forth into the sweet unknown; Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist. Billy Pilgrim, prisoner-of-war in Dresden, shoved forth into Slaughterhouse-Five with the rest of them, along with one Kurt Vonneghut, though he himself never makes use of the name.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped to Tralfamadore and stuffed into their zoo along with a woman he comes to love. Billy Pilgrim, who knows the hour and the method of his own death, and knows it is predestined, and does not fool himself into believing in the folly of free will*.

So it goes.

What’s between the covers of Slaughterhouse-Five is real. It’s anger and it’s fury and maybe it’s helplessness, too, at the perpetual cycle that churns out war and its injustices. Monstrous, terrible as they are. Vonnegut shows it how it is; no glory can be found amidst the mud and ice – only the illusion of it in the eyes of the vainglorious prick Roland Weary, whose pettiness and cruelty plant a seed the poisonous fruit of which eventually results in the death of a good man.

It is also a critique of America, in two of the most poignant paragraphs I have read in recent memory:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

These words were true when Vonnegut wrote them, and they resonate so much stronger today. I fear they will resonate stronger yet tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after it, as well.

Strange, perhaps, that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the Sirens of Titan. But I appreciate its merits; appreciate, even, that it has more merits than Sirens does. I’ll always remember 2019 for Vonnegut, for this and Sirens and perhaps Breakfast of Champions, if I manage to get through it before the closing of the year.

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* But these are not Vonnegut’s beliefs; just because his main character believes it, and the Tralfamadorians believe it, doesn’t make it so, my friends. The only reason I mention this is, Vonnegut seems to have gotten a lot of flack for it in the past.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you how great James Franco does as narrator? No. No, I don’t.

Crown of the Sundered Empire by J. C. Kang – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

I approach the review of this one with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed much of the story (after a fashion), loved the characters and found several of the plot threads nothing short of riveting. On the other, dozens of typos pulled me out of the action very often, much to my annoyance.  Further, I admit to some confusion on account of the blurb of this novel only concentrating on a third, at most, of the story it tells. The much more significant conflict, which embroiders four out of the five point-of-view characters of Crown is described by the succinct sentence, “A coming war,” and perhaps by the following line “a broken land where conquerors dream of empires”.

J. C. Kang’s world is multifaceted. History and mythology are one and the same, with fragments of once-corporeal gods empowering the mortal might of broken and aspirant empires both. There’s enough here to be daunting to a new reader to the world of Tivara – at times, I felt lost, uncertain of which of the characters were being introduced for the first time and which of them had starring or supporting roles in Kang’s previous works.

I was entranced by Tomas’ story, the point of view which deals with the eponymous Crown of the Sundered Empire and with an invasion by the disgusting Bovyans, a race of large, militaristic males who procreate by forcing themselves on the women of those territories they subjugate through force. Tomas’ sharp wit is easy to grow fond of, and he goes through a dark hero’s journey, which sees him turn far more ruthless, at a very steep price. Only two instances come to mind as somewhat “off” in terms of his PoV sections, one of them when a soldier intent on not trusting the boy has a change of heart after stating very clearly he wouldn’t trust Tomas; the other involves a mid-wife in his village, of whom Tomas only ever thinks of as “the midwife.” This last one feels bizarrely archetypal and not at all like everyone in this tiny fishing and diving village has intimate knowledge of each other.

Our other characters, princes, princesses, bastards and a half-elf assassin, deal with the fallout of  Crown Prince Elrayn’s attempt to unite two broken kingdoms in order to further his own power. At its best, this part of the novel reminded me of the plots of some Shakesperean comedies, with men and women desperate to get out of arranged marriages, falling in love with exactly whom they shouldn’t and creating plenty of amusing conflict. At its worst, however, I just didn’t buy into the casual stupidity the Crown Prince exhibited in the midst of crisis – there’s incompetence, there’s short-sightedness and then there is whatever Elrayn suffers from. His early successes came across as no more than a stroke of luck, and his later failings appeared to me too artificial. Thankfully, he’s not one of the PoV characters – rather, the engine by which most of them come into the conflict.

I was familiar with the high-elf, Jie, from a short novella by the name of “Thorn of the Night Blossoms” and I enjoyed seeing her all grown-up and experienced but also struggling between duty and love. Her affair with Elrayn’s brother, Aryn, was a source of amusement and some well-appreciated tension, which ultimately didn’t come up to the sort of resolution I would’ve liked.

Alwrynn, royal bastard and brother to Elrayn and Aryn, whose overwhelming use of naval terms chafed during several instances, was otherwise an entertaining protagonist, skilled at sea but almost as helpless on land as in the world of politics. His connection with Alaena, the third PoV character and one of the princelings Elrayn attempts to marry into his family, is a source of plenty of tension that pays off really well towards the end of the story.

The action was fantastic, nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from Kang, based on my limited experience with his work.

Crown of the Sundered Empire is an intriguing read with plenty of positive elements. My enjoyment of it was mired by the typos and the extent to which I felt like a newcomer who lacked basic insight into some of the characters’ pasts and world events. Tomas’s story might’ve been a short novel of its own – and I would argue, it would’ve been a finer entry-point to the world for new readers such as myself. As it is, I liked J. C. Kang’s novel well enough, even with the issues I had, which is why I’m giving it 3/5 stars. I feel obliged to say that I’m in the minority – most of the readers who have scored this book over on Goodreads have given it either 4 or 5 stars. What didn’t work for me might very well work for you.