alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 62: Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

Goodreads: “For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of

Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.”

I’ve really enjoyed the three books so far in the Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate. Where the first set the pace, tone, and foundation for the series in a way that was already epic in scale, the latter two have somehow continued to build on that promise by introducing more narrative lead characters and new high-stakes conflict without letting the story run away from itself. Despite the expansion of character profiles and deeper exploration of those characters’ motivations, the core group we were introduced to in the first book — James Holden and his crew — remain central to the story, thereby anchoring us to a heart of the tale that we’ve grown familiar with and attached to.

Abaddon’s Gate contains a classic redemption tale, a frame-job, and the possibility of massive war among two superpowers, a lesser alliance, and an unknown alien foe that is likely to crush everyone and annihilate humanity in the blink of an eye. Our hero, James Holden, also talks to ghosts and even goes on a one-man mission as an emissary to the alien would-be demolitionists because that’s what the ghost tells him to do. The book rarely takes a moment to breathe, but the slower chapters reinforce the emotional stakes and passion — sometimes quiet, sometimes imbued with burning rage — that drive the characters.

Also remarkable in the series is the way that each book feels, in a way, like a standalone: there are no cliffhangers and the individual stories therein are resolved; however, the resolution sets up a backdrop for what may become the main source of tension in the next book, or the one after. Leviathan Wakes saw the emergence of a dangerous, little-understood alien protomolecule that, by the end, was seemingly dispatched into the inhospitable environment of Venus, therefore saving Earth from destruction. Caliban’s War showed the protomolecule quietly taking over Venus and exhibiting feats of impossible physics, worrying everyone to death over what its next move would be. Abaddon’s Gate reveals what the next move was, and though, again, the immediate conflict was solved, the possibility for major catastrophe still lurks in another form entirely. And none of that takes into account the political and personal struggles of the humans themselves, which could themselves be a collection of compelling and suspenseful stories.

The Expanse series is space opera at its finest. The prose isn’t the most sophisticated, but it’s tightly written and consistently entertaining. Even sci-fi novices could enjoy these books, I think, since they’re not overly jammed with techie jargon and high-concept gimmicks. If you’re put off because it’s set in space, don’t be. The plots are steeped in classic noir and suspense, with war games thrown in for good measure. Highly recommended.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #40: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Yadda Yadda Yadda: Main blog link is here

As the weather turns colder and the sports talk radio station turn their focus 100% towards pigskins, I can’t help but pop in audio-books to make my car ride go faster. Finding Douglas Adams’ classic surreal mystery in a box of my parent’s basement this summer was an unanticipated winner for me. All the silliness and sublime imagination of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is repurposed here to guide characters through a curious case of murder, betrayal, magical conjuring and a sofa stuck half way up a staircase.

As a reader, Adams knows precisely what he wants to emphasize in each line and phrase, and captures a great deal of the tonal elements that many other readers may miss. He occasionally blurs the distinctions between characters, and the rhythm of his jokes sometimes veers into “wry-observation-overload”. But the thrill of the chase, the glee of the literary allusions (turning Samuel Taylor Coleridge into a plot point must be an unparalleled feat of excellence in authorial nerdery), and the hilarity of his coy pause and punch-line syntax makes it a perfect companion through the snowy streets of commuter-ville USA.

 

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 53: Wool by Hugh Howey

Goodreads: In a ruined and toxic landscape, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I got into the game very late with this one, but in the case of this book, better late than never — this was a fantastic novel that I really enjoyed and can’t wait to keep going with the series. I love the story behind the publication of Wool, as well: that a truly talented author saw success based on the merit of his once little-known story.

Since Wool has already been pretty acclaimed amongst Cannonballers, I won’t really go on at length about it. I do want to, in particular, praise the characterization and that Howey’s gradual introductions of new character POVs didn’t ever feel overwhelming or excessive. Each added POV rounded out the developing story by providing insight into the different factions within the silo. Regarding his stories, Howey has said: “A theme in my books is the celebration of overcoming odds and of not allowing the cruelty of the universe to change who you are in the process.” Indeed, his characters are imbued with different backgrounds and motivations that inform their actions, but even within the context of uprising, class warfare, and “choosing sides,” the main players have an individual light that makes them more compelling and human than simply a rote war drone or even the stock iconoclast rebel.

Looking forward to Shift and eventually Dust.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #70: Requiem by Ken Scholes

requiem fantasy

The fourth book in the Psalms of Isaak series continues the very weird and original story that involves steampunk robots, world-ending curses, weird magic powders, and a bunch of powerful wizards who live on the moon. It’s a pretty cool story, but unfortunately my experience of reading it wasn’t ideal.

I received an ARC of the first book in this series in 2008 and I gobbled it up. It was a teensy bit rough getting into the storyworld for me, in the way that it sometimes is with new fantasy books that have complex worlds to build for their readers, most of them from the ground up. But the story and the characters were intriguing, and it was a ridiculously fast read. The second book was published six months later. I had a bit of trouble getting back into the story and trying to remember what was going on, but only a bit. The third book was published a year later. I had a significantly harder time getting back in to the story and trying to remember what events had led up to what was going on. My problems weren’t helped by the complete lack of any exposition in the series.  If you don’t remember exactly what has happened before in this series, you are screwed. I was of two minds with this. While I appreciated not being talked down to by the author, and liked that he assumed I would be smart enough to catch on to what was happening, the fact was that it had been two years since I’d started the series and in the interim, I’d been filling my brain with hundreds of other new books and cramming for my Master’s Exams. I caught on eventually, though, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. And then Scholes didn’t publish the fourth book for three more years. The result of this? I was completely and utterly lost for the first third of this book, and still not completely sure of myself for a good part after that.

I’m not sure how fair of me it is to judge this book based on my particular reading experience, but I can’t give this book any higher than three stars because the fact is that being that confused by a story (especially when I’m used to kicking pretty much any story’s ass that I read) was not a fun experience, and that made me resent the book. Look, I’m not sure what Mr. Scholes could have done about this, aside from writing the book faster*. Maybe something as simple as a brief summary of previous books at the beginning? Again, I appreciate that he didn’t feel the need to make callbacks and re-explain things he’d already explained in previous books, but come on. And it’s not even like I could turn to Wikipedia or some fan-made wiki for plot summaries or anything, because these books aren’t widely read, and those things just don’t exist. In order for me to have fully appreciated the events of this book, I would have had to re-read the first three, which is something I had neither the time nor inclination to do.

*I’m pretty sure a couple deaths in the family contributed to the slower writing pace for this one, and I get that. I’m not a total dick.

If any of you plan on checking this series out (and despite the tone of this review, I would suggest doing so if you like fantasy), I would highly recommend waiting for the last book to be published and then reading them all in a row. If I’d have done that, I’m pretty sure this would have been a four star read (although to talk about the actual book instead of my feeeeelings, part of me felt this book, unlike the last three in the series, was sort of treading water, not wanting too much to happen before the finale).

But, Mr. Scholes, please for the love of God, help me out next time? Just a little. I’m trying really hard to like your series, but I’m only human, here.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #69: Endgame by Ann Aguirre

endgameI’m not sure reading all six of these books back to back was such a great idea. I kind of got burnout and had a hard time finishing. But at the same time, I really liked what Aguirre ultimately did with this series. I thought Endgame was a great ending and really served to showcase just exactly what was important to her about Jax and Jax’s story. Jax herself tells us in the opening sentence, “This is not a love story,” so I’m not sure exactly how much clearer Aguirre could have made that.

Spoilers ahoy (probably shouldn’t read this unless you’ve already read the book).

This book wraps up the last and biggest of the dangling threads from the previous three books: Jax’s promise to help her friend Loras free his people from the genetic slavery they’ve been condemned to for the last century or so. It’s interesting the way that Aguirre has Jax recognize that a large part of her motivation comes from guilt — and the way other characters interact with her because of that — but also just because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Endgame takes us from the very beginnings of the revolution in La’Heng, with Jax covering their asses legally with the occupying government by submitting formal request after formal request for trials for their “cure” (which would end La’Heng dependence for good, essentially wiping out a planet-wide source of free labor for those used to taking advantage of it). And of course the current occupiers (the Nicuans) don’t want to give that power up, so they block her at every turn. From there, she and her group of friends build up the resistance piece by piece, and it’s to her credit that the whole thing reads as believable as it does. She also doesn’t give in to the temptation to have everything resolved in a short period of time. The span of this book covers years of story.

And then there’s Jax’s personal issues, which I thought were also handled very well. She kind of gets to have her cake and eat it, too. Due to events from previous books, Jax has a drastically expanded life expectancy, and she can certainly expect to outlive almost everyone she knows and loves, including her lover, March, who has accepted that fact and the two end up committing to each other for as he long as he lives. But once he goes, she’s got Vel to travel the universe with. I can see how some people might be discomfitted by this ending, but it worked for me. Overally, glad I picked this series up, and will definitely be checking out Aguirre’s other (many) books.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #70: Wool by Hugh Howey

I had a love affair with sci-fi as a teenager, and then inexplicably dropped it about 45 years ago when I got into politics, so I must confess that this is my first foray into the (much-evolved) genre in a very long time. I’m glad I started with Wool, which captured me early on with its evocative descriptions of an entire civilization living many stories below the surface of the earth in a post-apocalyptic world. Howey had to map out the excruciatingly detailed operations of this underground society, from power generation to communication, from law enforcement to food and services, from health care to information technology, and I don’t know which I found more awe-inspiring: the scientifically-detailed portrayal of the mechanisms which kept humanity alive for hundreds of years, or the emotionally-powerful descriptions of the pressure-cooker existence of humanity subsisting under rigidly-structured guidelines imposed from above … literally.

Wool starts his story with what looks like a deliberate suicide by the sheriff of our “Silo,” or underground society. He wants “out,” a release into the fatally toxic environment of the outer world usually reserved for violators of the strict rules he himself has been enforcing for decades. It seems his wife, a historian, had been secretly piecing together a long-buried history of the Silo and the past, which got her a death sentence in the form of a trip to the outside three years’ previously. When the sheriff decides to follow her, it’s not clear whether he is succumbing to his long-held grief, or seeking a truth he has only just glimpsed. The search for a new sheriff turns up our heroine Juliette, a tough young woman who works in the mechanical department in the very depths of the Silo and is beloved for her smarts, her competence, and her takes-no-shit-from-anyone stance. A few suspicious deaths occur before she can take office, and she dedicates her first days on the job to unraveling the first threads of a conspiracy of unimaginable breadth. All too soon she crosses paths with the enemy, and is quickly scheduled for a trip outside.

This is when things start to get interesting, and Howey takes us on a terrifying—and quite lengthy– journey across unimaginable voids, which open into new worlds of imagination and warnings of what is to come. Wool (which title I never figured out, by the way) is the first of a trilogy Howey is planning, and while I don’t want to give out any spoilers, I think it useful to quote Howey himself, who told me that his entire series “is a metaphor for the silliness of us living in silos (countries) apart from one another, warring with one another, when we should be pooling our resources and looking to the stars.” A beautiful sentiment that I fully share and, if Wool is any indication, the trilogy promises to be a powerful offering for those of us with the patience and imagination to stick with it.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 41: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

Fellow Pajibans recommended this to me during the last Cannonball, when I related my disappointment with The Flame Alphabet (tie-in: language epidemics.) It was very interesting to read this book so shortly after Ready Player One, because both deal with immersion in virtual realities. I enjoyed having Cline’s version  in recent memory as I read Snow Crash, which, as a predecessor to Ready Player One and a sci-fi/cyberpunk classic in its own right, almost certainly had a huge influence on Cline’s work.

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.