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text 2019-03-28 11:20
The Quantum Magician
The Quantum Magician - Derek Künsken

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

I loved the world built here. It took a bit of work and time to get into it and piece things together, but not so much time, all things considered, and I found the conundrums of the additional human species really fascinating. The Homo Eridanus, engineered to survive in several hundred atmospheres of pressure in hostile oceans, but unable to ever get to the surface unless they want to be crushed to death. The Puppets, twisted slave-race created by the Numen, who thought themselves superior to the others, and made themselves into gods… without really thinking about what this would make their “worshippers” do (a.k.a the Puppets are as fascinating as a train wreck). And the Homo quantus, made to delve into the mysteries of time and space, seeking a state of fugue which is the only one where they can fully observe the universe, but to the cost of their individuality and their health. (Speaking of which, the fugue demands the lack of an observing conscience in order to avoid collapsing the wavefunction; if the Copenhagen interpretation irks you to no ends, you may not like that part.)

And, behind this, a geopolitical system strewn through space thanks to wormholes, with patron and client nations, and a delicate balance between all of those. Many possibilities, only a few of which are explored here.

The story also has the proper elements of a good con/heist: an ambitious goal that most people would call crazy and impossible; a team of misfits and odd people gathered from various places to each play they parts (including, among others, an ex-soldier who loves her explosives, an exiled Puppet, a dying man, a geneticist, and an AI who believes itself the reincarnation of Saint Matthew); and, of course, things that don’t go exactly according to plan, because where would be the fun otherwise?

The characters, in general, are also compelling and well-developed. Belisarius and Cassandra draw an interesting dynamics: she loves the fugue but has trouble staying in it, he was engineered too well and can’t get out of the fugue before it kills his physical brain due to overheating. Gates-15 is a Puppet exiled because he cannot react to Numen pheromones, and so cannot experience the divinity of his captive gods, and who wants nothing more than to go back to his homeworld… with a twist, that is. William has to weigh what he stands to lose against all he could give his daughter instead if the con works. Marie was less developed, but her antics combined with those of Stills, the swearing Eridanian whose people’s credo is to give the finger to the universe who screwed them, were pretty fun to read (yeah, I loved Stills).

There was a downside here for me, though, in that while I loved the hard science incorporated in the foundations of this world, the way it was sometimes explained slowed down the whole caper/heist part. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this book to a reader who’s not keen on hard science fiction in general.

Conclusion: A solid 4 stars, I enjoyed the characters and the world, and I’m interested in any sequel that comes out.

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review 2018-04-05 17:13
Invictus - Ryan Graudin

[I received a copy of this book through Netgalley.]

What I liked:

- The beginning. Of course, you can tell immediately where this is going, and that there’s going to be another proposal to offset the bad news, and you can guess what that proposal will be, but it’s OK because it’s why you’re reading the book. Well, why I was reading it, at any rate.

- Some aspects of the world building, with the idea of trained people going back in time to record events, and having to follow specific rules to avoid creating paradoxes. It makes a lot of sense, since the ‘grandfather paradox’ is definitely not the only risk in such a setting: it’s obvious that you wouldn’t want to kill your own grandfather if you hope to be born someday… but it’s much less obvious that even ‘small’ actions like gambling in a casino can have consequences, for instance by preventing the ‘normal’ winner from winning, in turn preventing them from doing things that should normally have happened, and so on. The most noticeable actions aren’t the only ones that can change the world.

- The crew’s dynamics. I have a soft spot for heist stories carried by a crew (ship, spaceship, band of misfits, whatever), and when the latter works well together, it’s even better. In itself¸ this part wasn’t the most exceptional ever, but I could feel the ties uniting them, and that was good.

- Diversity. Priya is obviously of Indian origin, Gram is dark-skinned, and Far also has inherited a darker complexion from his father. It’s not mentioned more than once or twice, but it’s good to see.

- The book was entertaining, I wanted to know how the story would go (good thing I’ve been on sick leave and with time on my hands to rush through it, huh), and in general the action and tension scenes were gripping.

What I didn’t like so much:

- The romance. I’m not particularly keen on romance in general, for starters— in my experience 90% of such subplots, when they happen in stories whose main genre is not romance, are there because it’s what people (or the market, or publishing houses, I’m never really sure) expect. As a result, the romance feels forced, and that’s the feeling I got here. I didn’t particularly care about Imogen having a crush, all the more since it led to some screen time being used up for conversations about boys and should-I-oh-no-I-don’t-dare. As for the romance between Far and Priya, it was announced very suddenly, its beginnings happened off-scene, and I never felt any real chemistry between these two. In a story revolving around an all-for-one type of crew, friendship all the way would’ve worked better for me.

- The lull mid-book, the part where they go to Las Vegas. Partly because of the romance-related conversations, partly because I wanted to shout ‘Seriously, characters, is partying and getting drunk the best you can do right now?’

- Some other aspects of the world building. Yes, I know I partially liked it. However, some elements were there for… no reason? Example: How can Priya be 17-18 and already a full-fledged medic, with mechanic skills to boot? When did she got time to learn all that? Or why do they eat synthetic food, why is ice cream so expensive? I felt the latter points were here to give a ‘science-fictiony’ sheen, but without explanations about why the world came to be like that, I can never fully buy it. (I’m not asking for a treaty about 24th century economics, but at least a couple of lines about the whys would be nice.)

- Part of the plot when it comes to Eliot’s involvement. First, it’d have been good to see a couple of successful heists before she appeared, so that the disruption she created would be even stronger. Second, the true reason for her presence is somewhat complicated, and may have worked better with a little more development. An example of what I felt rushed with that is how easily an antagonist character convinces other antagonist characters to work with him, towards the end, in order to stop her; it happened very quickly, wasn’t very convincing, and anyway, why didn’t he enlist his own after that, to add a strike force he could fully control?
(Side note: I found the names they used very confusing. I could deal with the endings, like FLT6, but the whole strings of numbers in the middle… I kept trying to imagine the conversation with Eliot speaking these numbers, and I’m surprised she didn’t make a mistake every two sentences when using those.)

- The characters, outside of their role as a group. As a crew, I thought they functioned together well; but as individuals, they felt flatter. They have their quirks, sure (Imogen dying her hair, Gram and his games), but quirks don’t make a full-fledged character. I didn’t really like Far, he had too much of the ‘strong ego/insufferable’ vibe without enough of the ‘dashing captain/charisma’ vibe, so to speak. Also, I would’ve liked to see more of Gram, for some reason I liked him best.

Conclusion: Cool concepts, with good action scenes. The book was an entertaining read, although it failed in other parts.

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review 2017-10-21 18:31
Artemis - Andy Weir

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I loved “The Martian”, so of course I was bound to request this one. To be fair, I didn’t enjoy it as much, but it was still a good, fun read in several ways.

I found the characters in general likeable enough, in definite ‘shades of grey. The ‘heroes’ of this story are seldom all white, and go about their business with good intentions and shady ways. The businessman who moved to the moon to help his ailing daughter, but is a crook on the side. The economist who almost single-handedly set a whole country as the only entry point to the Moon, and won’t shy away from closing eyes on criminal deals as long as they help keeping Artemis afloat. The city’s policeman (Artemis has something like 2,000 inhabitants, minus the tourists, so Rudy does the job) who’s keeping order by breaking a few arms at times if he deems it’ll be a better punishment than prison. And, of course, Jazz Bashara herself, porter by day, smuggler by night, of sorts, running her little operation with no one the wiser.

(Granted, not everyone is a complete a-hole here, Jazz’s father for instance is a law-abiding citizen who doesn’t want anything to do with his daughter’s shady side; on the other hand, Jazz clearly has him to thank for her own ethical side, the one that makes her never renege on a deal, and puts her in the (trustworthy criminal’ category, so to speak.)

The story itself starts in a fairly typical way for heist stories: Jazz needs money, her criminal activities aren’t bringing in as much as she needs, nor quickly enough, so when a dangerous but particularly juicy deal comes her way, she shoves her qualms in her pocket and accepts it. Only it turns out she’s bitten more than she could chew, and finds herself embroiled in an almost conspiracy, forcing her to gather all her wits, resources and allies in order to find a way out. All in all, the kind of story I like to read: maybe not the most original, but with high potential for action, fun, quirky characters, and, well, capers.

There isn’t as much technical detailing in this novel as there was in “The Martian”, so it’s definitely not hard to follow. The whole caper(s) resting on scientific knowledge and using the moon’s gravity and peculiar sides to work within the plan, that was really interesting for me. Maybe the welding-related descriptions were a little too long at times, though; at least, I didn’t care as much about those as I did about other scientific explanations.

I liked the overall diversity in Artemis. This small city has, from A to Z, a multicultural side that I think worked well, and didn’t rest on the usual ‘Western world colonises space’ (Kenya and its space company holds the entry door to the moon, Artemis’s administrator is a Kenyan woman, the policeman is Canadian, Jazz and her father are from Saudi Arabia, many of Jazz’s contacts are Vietnamese or Slavic, etc.).

I wasn’t totally on board with the way Jazz told the story, though. The wit didn’t work as well here as it did in “The Martian”, mostly, I’d say, because there’s too much of a dichotomy between Jazz’s ‘voice’ and her age: sometime in the middle of the story, we learn she’s 26, but from her tone, attitude, expressions and way of being, I would’ve thought her late teens/20, and not older. There -is- an immature side to her character, so in itself it’s not like her voice doesn’t fit at all, yet it didn’t feel ‘right’ either.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Disregard the author’s previous best-seller, take this story as it comes, and enjoy the heist parts, the assembling of Jazz’s motley crew, the description of Artemis, and the outings on the Moon in an EVA suit that can spring a leak just any time due to the characters attempting bold moves and daring rescues.

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review 2016-06-26 17:22
Street Magicks
Street Magicks - Paula Guran

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

In the past, I read a couple of other anthologies edited by Paula Guran, and I remember liking them overall, due to the choice of stories: they may not all have been breathtaking, but they also weren abysmal, and as far as anthologies go, I think I do tend to appreciate that a little more than reading excellency pitched against really bad writing.

The stories here deal mostly with magical happenings and encountering in cities--a theme I especially like. Most are modern fantasy, but more traditional fantasy also has its place here.

“Freewheeling” - 2/5
A young woman tries to help a kid whose very special take on life may be madness... or a real touch of magic? And the question is, will mundane life keep interfering until something tragic happens, or will magic happen instead?
Not my favourite. I could see the ending coming almost from the beginning.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” - 4/5
A band of retired thieves find themselves back in their ¨line of duty¨ to perform the theft of their lives: steal a whole street. Humour, magic, blackmail, backstabbing, an urban setting, and a cast of mostly women (and an automaton) whoŕe not afraid to be who they are. Whatś not to like?

“Caligo Lane” - 3/5
Read in another anthology “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Nine” so I guess the novelty wasn exactly there. Still, it remains a touching story, of a mage who uses maps to bend space and save people trapped in parts of the world where every other means of escape have failed.

“Socks” - 3/5
A Bordertown story. I don´t know that setting, except through another story in another anthology; however, I still think it´s not such a problem, as mood and theme are easy enough to ¨get¨ even without knowing the whole context. Here, Socks, a young girl, is taken in by a family of strays. Soon after, Perdita joins the crew, Perdita whose mysterious mother taught her many a tale...
Interesting, but I found myself wanting to know more about Socks at the end--it was never clear whereas the whole thing about her feet was merely illness, or a symptom of something else. I kept expecting that something else to happen, and... nothing?

“Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” - 3.5/5
A poetic tale of a man cursed to turn into a bird, going through centuries without respite, until a kind of magic apt to break his curse surfaces in the painting of artist Maeve. A bittersweet tale, perhaps a bit too focused at times on the artist-chic cliche? I may be a little jaded with that one at the moment -- it itself, it doesn´t make the story bad, at any rate.

“The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories” - 2/5
Originally read in “Smoke and Mirrors”. This one relates a writer's experience as he flies to Hollywood, where his novel is to be adapted into a movie, only to see said novel stripped to the bone and reworked every time. A tale of being dispossessed on one's soul, maybe, and of having to let go. Or perhaps a tale of former Holywood legends fallen back into the mist of times, unremembered by all but the humblest?
Not my favourite Gaiman story, to be honest. It's a bit... bland compared to some of his other works.

“One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King” - 2/5
A good beginning, of a struggle between spirits/local gods fighting for their turf. The story was wanting, though, as it feels like it should be expanded into something more. It's a beginning, indeed, and not a full-fledged plot.

“Street Worm” - 4/5
Rather scary when you come to think of it. A teenage girl runs away from a privileged home, for her parents believe her going on slightly crazy and want to send her to a shrink (probably not for all the good reasons either — a family has standards to uphold within the community...). But is this girl just mad, or does she really see things, things of another kind, worms danglings from buildings like a threat lingering above the city? And the man who tells her sheś magic, is he meaning well, or is he just a creep?
I wanted a bit more at the end, to be honest. Like a lot of stories, this one feels like unfinished business in some parts. Still, a good read.

“A Water Matter” - 2/5
The Duke is dead, may he stay dead! Only a mysterious and potentially malevolent shaman wants the power released upon that death, so the Dancing Mistress, a shapeshifter (...I think?) takes it upon herself to prevent this from happening.
More than with the Bordertown stories, I think I was missing something here—the action is set in a world with its own backstory, and I constantly felt it was part of something bigger, something that deserved more. The actual plot didn't impact me as it could have, had things been otherwise.

“Last Call” - 3/5
A Harry Dresden short story. On principle, I tend to like those, because I'm fond of the world and character Butcher developed (they're part of the works I'd quote first if someone asked me for examples of “urban fantasy”). On the other hand, this one is a bit spoilerish if you haven't read at least the first 8-9 books of the series...

“Bridle” - 1/5
A kelpie story, with a dark fantasy approach that had its poetic moments. Still, it didn't grab me much.

“The Last Triangle” - 4,5/5
A junkie finds shelter at an old woman's who happens to realise a dark magic ritual is about to take place. Together, they do everything they can to stop it, as well as the person casting it.
This one had the kind of plot and ending I'd deem as “definite”. You can see it going somewhere, with a beginning, middle and end, and even though the latter is “open” as far as the main character's future is concerned, it nonetheless brings resolution to the “dark spell” plot.

“Working for the God of the Love of Money” - 2/5
Again, an interesting beginning, but the end was very abrupt (in an expected-yet-not-waited-for way).

“Hello, Moto” - 4/5
Three witches with enchanted wigs let themselves be devoured by their magic... or not? For Rain, taking upon herself once again to mix up magic with technology, wants to stop her “sisters” gone on a rampage of take-never-give in Lagos. One may wonder, though, if using precisely what went wrong the first time can right that wrong... or not.
Original and entertaining. I just regret the ending, again too abrupt, with no true resolution per se. “Leaving things to the reader's imagination” can only go so far...

“The Spirit of the Thing: A Nightside Story” - 3/5
A detective doing his job, a shady bar with an even shadier owner, and angry water spirit, the ghost of a murdered young woman, and a twist to try and make things right no matter what.

“A Night in Electric Squidland” - 3/5
Paranormal investigators working on a murder case end up in a night club whose practices may not be what they seem.
I liked the atmosphere (the dark and somewhat perverted rituals going on, while the club also offered “nicer” attractions like a stage magician). I didn't connect much with the characters, though.

“Speechless in Seattle” - 3/5
A.k.a “pay attention to the exact wording of your spells”, which is something a lot of mages should do. ;)
A cute story, with likeable characters. Only, as usual in such cases, the grounds for budding romance were kind of wasted on me.

“Palimpsest” - 2/5
Pretty, I guess, and evoking strange places in a strange city whose elusive map can only be found in some very special places. However, it was rather confusing, without much of a plot to speak of.

“Ash” - 4/5
Laid off from his job with minimum benefits, a man decides to commit a robbery, but one decision made while running away from the security guard has dire consequences.
A story of guilt and revenge, of a dying curse, of the city turning stranger and stranger, darker and darker, until it closes over you and never lets you go.

“In Our Block” - 3/5
Or “two blokes find themselves wondering why the area they're in is so intriguing”, full of strange little shops and sellers/peddlers of unusual talents, like the typewriter girl. Although it was more a slice-of-life story than one with a real plot, it was enough for me, for once.

Conclusion: 3/5. I kind of expected this, as a lot of stories were of the “I liked” kind but not “great/I loved it”. Still, more good than bad in there. Though not a “to buy” recommendation, maybe a “borrow it” one?

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review 2016-03-27 17:24
Steal the Sky
Steal the Sky - Megan E O'Keefe

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

An interesting world with a lot of background remaining to be discovered, and characters that all hide more depth than one would think at first. However, I found the story itself somewhat confusing.

It starts with an offer that our main thief/conman character, Detan Honding, is in no position to refuse, coming from the very captain of the Watch. A strange request: steal the newfangled airship of ex-Commodore Thratia, an exile from the the Valathean empire, infamous for her ruthless methods. Soon enough, though, Detan and Tibal, his friend and associate, realise they may be out of their depth here, and that the players involved aren't so easy to thwart.

A lot of things revolve around selium, a strange gas found on the Scorched Continent, that can only be manipulated by sel-sensitive people. Privileged in a way, but slaves in many others: they have no other choice than to work in the selium mines (regular people won't be their friends if their shirk their “duty”...), those who lose their skill are forced into retirement, and those with “deviant” talents are sooner or later captured and experimented upon by the Valathean “whitecoats”. Not such very enthralling prospects. As for criminals in Aransa, the mining city where the story is set, they can choose to die by the axe, or to “walk the Black”, aka letting the scorching sun of the obsidian desert kill them in a matter of minutes (if they're lucky).

There's a lot seemingly going on behind the scenes. Valathea, for instance, with its blend of refinement and cruelty (I couldn't help but envision a mix between Roman and Chinese civilisations, in terms of conquest and clothing, with airships and an elite corps of scientists bent on dissecting people with sel-related abilities). The Scorched had a “Far West/unconquered land” vibe in some ways—perhaps because of the whole desert thing and of how it tried to remain out of Valathea's influence, but could feel it pressing down closer and closer. Additionally, many characters appear simple at first (Detan is a conman, Ripka the loyal Watch captain, Thratia a ruthless manipulator who won't hesitate to kill people, the doppel a mysterious killer with a single goal...) yet soon show signs of being more than meet the eye, with agendas and knowledge of their own,

However, while the world felt rich, and provides enough ground to cover more than one book in that regard, the plot was a bit all over the place, as if it couldn't decide what to focus on. The expected heist (stealing an airship) wasn't so exciting nor given that much attention, with our conmen being more outclassed than actually able to properly work on it, and with the story veering into murder investigation, and revenge, and intrigue, and a few more things. This felt more confusing than anything else. I guess this is partly a case of “it's not the book, it's me”: I like heist stories, but I like them with my burglars/conmen being able to have a marginal success at least. Here, both Detan and Tibs went from failure to failure, with Detan losing his “rogue” charm, and after a while I didn't really care anymore.

2.5 stars. The setting remains interesting, so I may check the next book if NetGalley or the library has it, because the group at the end has potential for good adventures, complete with an already existing dangerous enemy, and with another potential antagonist looming in the background. We'll see.

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