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review 2017-04-01 05:11
Waking Hell
Waking Hell - Al Robertson

[I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley.]

Sequel to 'Crashing Heaven', a novel I read a couple of years ago, and quite liked. The world is roughly the same—Station, floating in space—but the protagonists are different, and the situation has changed: one of the gods was forcibly removed, and the fetches (dead people reconstructed from their memories) now have existences of their own, even though their community went through a plague that almost destroyed them along the way.

The characters: as mentioned above, no Hugo Fist or Jack Forster here, although they're briefly mentioned. This time, the story mainly follows Leila, a fetch who's trying to save her genius brother Dieter, and Cassiel, a Totality mind who's investigating said brother's death. It starts with Dieter falling prey to an old tech artifact, and dying from it; however, contrary to what Leila thinks at first, he cannot be brought back as a fetch, due to a fishy contract he signed at the last moment with a couple of shady characters called 'pressure men'. Finding herself the unwilling beneficiary of this contract that left her a rich heiress, Leila uses her newly acquired money—and the door it opens—to try and find out what really happened to Dieter, and bring him back at all costs, the way himself helped her build herself back up after the fetch plague almost deconstructed her for good.

Even though I admit I didn't like Leila much at first (too whiny and self-centered), and would have hoped to see Jack and Hugo again, soon enough the new characters grew up on me. On the one hand, Leila tends to keep focused on Dieter and not on the bigger picture, but this bit on the selfish side makes her, in a way, very human. On the other hand, she puts herself on the front line as well: you definitely can't call her a coward, all the more as the enemy could very well wipe her out of existence. As for Cassiel, she brings a lot of information about the AIs, the way they live, and how close they are to humans even if the latter don't always notice it.

(Interestingly, as a fetch, Leila is just as much dependent on hardware and on the local equivalent of the online world to exist and manifest herself. The world of Station definitely keeps blurring the lines and questioning what makes us human, especially once you throw the gods into the mix: the Rose who isn't so infallible, East who's obsessed with the media and her reality shows...)

There are a lot of epic virtual reality/online world/hidden servers moments. Because both Leila and Cassiel are reconstructed or artificial AIs, they're both powerful and frail. Without a physical body, and armed with a weapon Dieter had once designed for her only, Leila has means of her own to fight and resist; and Cassiel was designed as a weapon herself, with a nanogel body making her suited for both physical and digital combat; and yet, because they're software-based, they're vulnerable to viruses and similar attacks... which makes the pressure men and their ability to edit data (including memories) all the more dangerous to them. Memory is clearly one of the stakes in the novel, because there comes a point when neither characters nor readers can really tell whether their memories are true or were manipulated.

A few discrepancies in terms of style (I had noticed that in the first book already: sometimes the prose switches to short sentences that jar a little with the rest), but not enough to really be a problem. All instances of 'brought' were also printed as 'bought', but since I got a preprint copy, this was hopefully corrected in the final version.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I found the ending a little rushed, with some loose ends not so properly tied, and there were a couple of moments when I had to push through for a few pages (for some reason I can't exactly pinpoint). Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Station and its particular blend of bleak cyberpunk and transhumanism. Should there be a third book, I wouldn't mind reading it either.

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review 2016-09-21 22:44
A Dreaming City
A City Dreaming - Daniel Polansky

[I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

 

Quite a strange book, in that it didn't exactly have a plot, more of a collection of "slice of life" moments. Well, moment in the life of a being able to bend reality to his will, or almost, surrounding himself, whether he wants it or not, with other exceptional beings.

 

After years, decades of wandering around, M is back in New York, where he gets reacquainted with old friends and enemies (not mutually exclusive), gets entangled in the local magic politics, finds himself facing strange worlds and creatures at times, all the while trying to remain "in good terms with the Management"—in other words, balancing feats of magic just right enough to live nicely, without getting much of backlash. And let's be honest, M's friends are often worse than his foes, considering the dire straits they take him into.

 

The New York M evolves in is definitely strange and enchanting in its own ways, mixing daily mundane places and events with happenings out of this world. Immortal mages trying to kill each others, the two Queens of New York trying to get the upper hand each int their own sly ways, revenge and curses, magical underground trains, apprentices coming out of nowhere, traders playing at human sacrifice... There are so, so many odd things in that city, in M's world in general.

 

The major problem I see with this novel is the fact it's a collection of mini-adventures, connected by a loose red thread much more than by any kind of solid plot. M meets some old friend who drags him on a crappy errand, or has to go and trick pirates to free another friend who got kidnapped, or finds himself in an alternate world whose rules may very well trample his own perception of reality... and so on. The blurb was misleading, in that its wording led me to believe there would be more of a plot (there's no real war between the Queens, for instance, and some of the stories felt repetitive). Instead, the connectors are people and places rather than events leading to other events, and not in the way of a more traditional narrative. Which is an interesting thing or not, depending on how you perceive it.

 

While I wasn't too convinced at first, in the end, this technique nevertheless offered glimpses into a magical world, and I found myself wanting to see which new adventure would unfold in every new chapter—not to mention that whenever connectors met, they still gave a sense of things tying together, but just a little, just enough, not as a series of convenient coincidences. (Because -that- can also be a problem, when a plot is too well packed and loose ends are too nicely tied.)

 

These stories also provide an interesting view on modern life: night scenes, drug addiction, poverty (so many people around you, who won't see you as you're being dragged down...), making and losing friends, art and pleasure, unpleasant acquaintances, wealthy lifestyle vs. a more subdued kind of existence, choices to make in the face of adversity, responsibilities, humanity...There's a strong current of life to this New Work, carrying its people just as much as its people carry it, and the author pictures it funny, dark and loving tones all at once.

 

Conclusion: I can't say I absolutely loved this book, however it contains a lot of imaginative elements, and the New York, the City with a capital C described in it, was such a vivid backdrop that it may just as well be called a character as well. 3.5 stars, going on 4.

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review 2016-04-19 21:18
Monstrous Little Voices
Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare's Fantasy World - Jonathan Barnes,Adrian Tchaikovsky,Emma Newman,Kate Heartfield,Foz Meadows

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A tale told through five different shorter stories, and by the hand of five different authors. “Monstrous Little Voices” picks some of Shakespeare's plays (“The Tempest”, “Macbeth”, “Twelfth Night”...) and extrapolates on their themes and characters. Gender identity, the roles a gender may impose on a person, one's decision to shake off those shackles and keep living without a care for the shape they're in, the bravery of women acting “like men” (to the dismay of said men, poor creatures!)... More than once are those explored, while all the stories gather around a plot of impending war and intrigue, under the watchful eyes of fairies with their own agendas, and deities with shady plans as well.

There are a lot of cameos and cross-references here, and not knowing the works from which they sprang would lead to missing on quite a few good parts, so be prepared to brush up your Shakespeare before diving into this collection, and to know who we're talking about when mentioning Miranda, Puck, Paroles or Helen—not to mention those characters who allude at yet other sources... much like Shakespeare himself found inspiration in various sources as well. And so, many, many times, the five tales entertwining here do so with their faire amount of echoes.

The first, second and third were clearly my favourites, both for their plots and for their themes. “Coral Bones” is the story of Miranda's journey, after she left her island and realised that life among men, abiding by laws written for Man by men, was nothing to write home about. I particularly liked her take on gender, on wanting to be “human” and “oneself” above anything else, of not agreeing with those for whom gender should define one's behaviour and ways of thinking. And this story definitely shows her as more resourceful and cunning than one would think. “The Course of True Love” was ripe with magic, metamorphoses, questioning about one's true nature—and seeing older people at the heart of romance was extremely refreshing, showing that love can be born anywhere, anytime. As for “The Unkindest Cut”, I liked its self-fulfilling prophetic contents, and how it played on twisting words and visions; its end is bittersweet, full of dark promises... but here, too, showing another female character who's determined to take her life between her hands (in an interesting twist, considering how blank she was at first, when all she wanted was to marry The Man).

On the other hand, I admit I didn't care much for stories #4 and #5. “Even in the Cannon's Mouth” felt too disjointed, a feeling made stronger as the story sometimes shifted to present tense. Finally, “On the Twelfth Night” tied the other stories in a way that somewhat made sense... but I have such a hard time with second person POV that trudging through those last pages wasn't too pleasant (it's even more jarring when the “you” is actually named, and isn't “you the reader”—this just doesn't make sense).

Conclusion: the first three stories were the root of most of my enjoyment here; I wished it had been the same with the others. 3,5 stars.

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text 2016-03-17 21:06
The Grace of Kings
The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

[I received a copy of this book through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Mixed bag of feelings and opinions regarding this novel: it has the making of a great epic, with battles and politics and court intrigue and betrayals... but more than once, it read more like a history book, which didn't make the characters really three-dimensional.

This is the story of Mata Zyndu, “the Chrysanthemum”, scion of a noble though destroyed family, a powerful warrior destined to do great things and convinced everything and everyone has their rightful place in the world; and Kuni Garu, “the Dandelion”, a good-to-nothing son turned gangster for want of fidning a goal in life first, but who's gradually proving himself very resourceful. As Emperor Mapidéré's reign of terror plunges more and more people into poverty and forced building works, these two men, each for their own reasons, find themselves taking arms in the hopes of making the isles of Dara a peaceful set of kingdoms again... But can thisbe achieved, or will the empowered kings go back to petty squabbling of old?

As a lot of stories go, it is ripe with strife, brothers turning against each other, allies found where nobody ever expected them, faithful families and love interests turned traitors, and... ell, you name it, it probably has it. The pacing was usually fast, covering several weeks or months at times, the novel spanning a few years of fights and rebellion and of trying to build a new world. It never wants for events, for the tide turning suddenly for this or that character, for another character managing to come up with a new deal, and so on.

The setting is reminiscent of feudal Chinese society, with a dash of steampunk (there are rudimentary airships, and later steam technology gets developed). The Emperor is law, everybody's below him, those who voice out their criticism tend to be silenced forever very quickly. Sons and daughters are expected to uphold the family's honour, and if they don't, they often get cast away or at least partly shunned. While I confess not knowing much to Chinese history, customs and mores, the story managed to make me feel its influences, in a good way. I had no trouble imagining the complex sitting and greeting etiquette, or to picture schools with ancient men dispensing the teachings of sages of old (obviously modelled on Confucius or Sun Tzu, but whether this is plagiarism or homage didn't matter much to me, since I liked the world depicted here).

And even though the world of Dara isn't perfect, even though the Emperor is a tyrant and his son a naïve, sheltered teenager, there aren't only bad sides to the “tyranny”: as Mapidéré displaces noble families to prevent them from rallying supporters in their original lands, trade develops (because, simply enough, people sent to other islands long for their home's cooking and clothing, and so on). There's a vision gone wrong in all this... but a vision nonetheless.

On the downside, the writing style, while beautiful in some places, often felt dry and too descriptive—too much telling, not enough showing, making the action read as if it was being told by a remote observer. This in turn impeded the characters' development, as often, too, we're told of their merits and flaws, of how they evolve... instead of being shown. I still found myself rooting alternatively for Kuni, for Mata, for Gin and a few others; nevertheless, I would've liked them even more had their potential complexity really shone through, rather than being recounted. And they really had such potential, considering the nest of opportunities and treasons they went through. So many scenes that could have been between Jia and Risana, for instance, but were told in too few, too short paragraphs.

Also, I must admit I didn't really care for the part played by the gods. So they shouldn't interfere directly... but some did it indirectly... but was it really so indirect... but wait, in the end it's still the mere mortals making history anyway... I sort of get this message, however the way it was handed felt like a series of devices meant to advance the plot, and nothing more.

Conclusion: mostly I liked this story, and may check the second volume later. It had potential for something bigger, though, something grander, especially when the characters were concerned—and in the end, it wasn't so much.

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review 2015-12-19 10:38
The Pyramids of London
The Pyramids of London (The Trifold Age Book 1) - Andrea K Höst

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Good ideas in terms of world building, although in general, I found the novel a little confusing.

Lots of concepts introduced here, with references to our world: Prytennia is obviously Britain, the Roman Empire and Egypt speak for themselves, and so it was very easy to picture the setting, geographically speaking. There's still royalty in "Britain": check. Lutèce is Paris: check (shall I admit to knowing quite a few cities' old Roman names thanks to "Asterix"?). Various deities associated to various cults, like Cernunnos or Lakshmi: check. At first, it may look like a mish-mash, but it makes a lot of sense in a context where, many centuries ago, the Gods "Answered" people's prayers and actually descended on the world, or made themselves incarnate in other ways. The Egyptian "gods", for instance, who gave birth to several strains of vampirism, each with its own powers (the Shu control winds, the Thoth-den use their blood to heal people, the Ma'at can tell who's lying...). Or Sulis (who in our world used to be worshipped at Bath), who manifests herself through three women, the Suleviae. For someone who knows a little about mythology, or even knows the very basics and wants to learn more, this book gives a few tracks to follow.

However, I didn't get the same feeling here I got from the blurb. Prytennia's climate seems to be warm (I immediately imagined cities close to the desert, with people wearing "skirts" instead of trousers), but I didn't feel the urgency of being "under attack from the wind itself". The political intrigues from the Swedes, through their representative Gustav, seemed to be more of an afterthought than something that would really affect Prytennia. The "selling oneself to a vampire" part didn't seem that bad: more a contract for a decade or so, without aging, and I guess there are so many worse ways to indenture oneself. I don't know if this came from the plot itself (Arianne and her nieces and nephew investigating to know what happened to the dead parents) or from the narrative, the way it was woven. Maybe I was expecting something else.

I also couldn't push myself to really care for the characters. Arianne's calm take on basically everything dampened the predicament she was in (potentially turning into a vampire against her will—that's not a spoiler, you know about it in the very first chapters). The romantic interests came a little out of nowhere, and I'm not sure if they were exactly important when pitched against the backdrop of "who dunnit" and "there's a secret behind what our parents were working on". When some characters disappeared, I wasn't so invested, because I hadn't gotten to know them more beforehand, and they were more sidenotes for me than people. Mostly I felt that the characters were removed from themselves, dispassionately looking at their own lives from afar, and so in turn I looked at them from afar, too.

Still, I liked the world developed here. Perhaps a bit too much was shoved in the reader's face from the beginning (any book that needs a glossary tends to be of that kind), but some more careful reading on my part allowed me to quickly grab what it was all about. And it's definitely a good thing that a lot of the characters are women, and they do Important Things, and it's completely normal because women in this world get to do Important Things all the time anyway, and it's not only the men's turf. (The Queen is part of a goddess incarnate and gets to mingle with dragons, one of the princesses commands a very special kind of guard/spies, girls get to study engineering and can land apprenticeships in workshops, or even have workshops of their own, without society making them feel "improper"... Etc.)

I may decide to grab the second volume at some point. I don't know yet. I'm hovering around the 2.5 stars mark here, in between some parts I found "OK" and others that made me think "this is a good idea, I like it". (Vampires especially: they aren't emo creatures, they become like that due to a symbiotic relationship with specific strains living in their blood, they have souls, they believe in an Egyptian-like Otherworld where they have to strengthen their ba before being able to carry on.) If the next book can get past the somewhat-confusing approach to this world, and focuses more on the characters in a way that would make me feel involved, then I'll be interested.

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