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review 2017-06-04 21:19
All Good Things
All Good Things - Emma Newman

I a stalwart fan of Emma Newman through her powerful work, Planetside. Although the tone and plot of the Split Worlds series are very different, I loved them all, devouring the previous four books in less than one week. After waiting for the final book for almost a year, I found it a satisfying conclusion to the series. As with the previous books in the series, All Good Things deals heavily with themes of feminism, environmentalism, agency, and responsibility.

 

This book is the completion of a long story arc, and I don't believe it should be read without the rest of the series. All of the characters from previous books have returned. As always, I wasn't quite sure if I actually liked Cathy, the major protagonist of the series and the is the driving force of the story. Cathy is a fierce feminist who wants to bring change to the changeless Nether world, but to me it feels like she is driven by a selfish, myopic ideology that often stops her from seeing the harm her actions inflict on others. This selfishness is examined in the novel: Cathy seeks to bring dramatic change, and this is bound to have negative impacts on others. What right does she have to make these types of decisions for so many others? As one character puts it:

"To create change, to disrupt a system of control, one must carry out radcal acts. One must be prepared to destroy so that something new can be created. Those in control will never give up the power afforded to them voluntarily. It must be taken. If that requires the deaths of a few to give freedom to the many-- and survival of the many--then so be it. This is not a gentle act."

But who has the right to decide to make that sacrifice? Does having the power to carry out the act give you the right to do so?

 

Fortunately, the other characters-- Sam, Lucy, Kay, and the gargoyle -- are more sympathetic. However, there's a big "anyone can die" and "anyone can betray" vibe in the novel. There is no easy division into protagonists and antagonists in the novel: everyone is driven by their own motivations and secret loyalties. Because of this, there have been many different antagonists in the story, with protagonists easily morphing into enemies. Sometimes, the changes felt too facile to me, the deaths of characters too superficial, the betrayals too unrooted. I particularly disliked how anticlimactic some of the dismissals of characters we've grown to care about throughout the series were, and how easily the characters were forgotten and set aside.

For all the strong feminist themes of the novels, if you look at who dies or is forgotten, you'll see an impressive number of women. Bea's death was simply pathetic. Kay got refrigeratored, something I find particularly hard to stomach from an overtly feminist series. But it's Lucy I found most troubling. She has been such a strong character throughout the series. To have her thrown away and forgotten because of an out-of-character and clumsy betrayal in which she became the pawn of a man? Not good. For me, the saving grace of the novel was that Will was revealed as the absolute villain of the piece. I was worried throughout that his rape and control would be seen as "extreme love" and that he would end up as the protagonist, as is so often the case in urban fantasy romance novels. As Cathy notes, rape is rape, and it should not be whitewashed.

(spoiler show)

At the same time, I loved some of the twists of All Good Things: one of my favourite aspects of the book is how antagonists morph into allies and how an abrupt twist brought the one true villain of the series into sharp relief.

 

At its core, the novel is all about control and ownership and responsibility, and however surprising the ending, I found All Good Things a satisfying end to the series. If you've read the other Split Worlds books, I don't need to tell you about this book because you're going to read it anyway. As for me, I can't wait to see what Emma Newman has in store for her readers next.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-09-05 22:14
"Society is not going to change under your sledgehammer, Cathy."
A Little Knowledge: The Split Worlds - Book Four - Emma Newman

A Little Knowledge

by Emma Newman

I genuinely can't explain what this book did or how it did it, but the day I finished A Little Knowledge, I purchased the first book in the series and promptly started reading it. And when I finished the first book, I bought the second. And then the third. I finished the entire series in sequence, one after the other. For those of you who don't know me, it's hard to explain just how out-of-character this is for me: I basically never buy books, and I have absolutely terrible series staying power. Yet without doubt, Emma Newman has gotten more of my money than any other author this year. And I don't really know why.

 

Because here's the thing about the Split Worlds series: it's insidious. When I read A Little Knowledge, I thought I felt lukewarm about it. As an inveterate and unashamed out-of-order series reader, when I tell you that this is not a good book to start the series with, please take my word for it. Newman may have a gift for worldbuilding and characters, but she has not yet mastered the gentle art of the recap. The Split Worlds is pretty complex and I had no idea what was going on most of the time. Yet I think that was part of the series' appeal. Basically, a long time ago, a cadre of sorcerers split the magic part of the world from the mundane. The fey were banished to Exilium, but they subvert and steal mortals and bring them into the Nether, an intermediate zone between the two worlds where time does not exist. These fey-touched act as puppets for their faerie lords, and their actions are patrolled by the Arbiters, mortals whose souls were dislocated from their bodies to prevent subversion by the fey. The world of the Nether is frozen in semi-Victorian English state, an endless stream of parties and dances and dinners, with women given no more agency than a pet dog.

 

Into this grim situation blunders Cathy, a child of the fey-touched who ran away to the mundane world and started going to college before she was dragged back to the Nether. As even she realizes:

"Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it."

Cathy may not have chosen her circumstances, but she's determined to make the best of them, and, more importantly, to change them, both for herself and the other women of the Nether. Even as her efforts heighten tensions between herself and everyone she loves, Cathy remains steadfast:

"But how will things ever change if I don't force them to?"

When I first read the book, I found the circumstances unpleasant and in some ways pointlessly unpleasant, much in the manner of YA dystopians: the setup is so extreme that it doesn't correlate with the world that its readers would inhabit. It's about feminism and agency and self-determinism, but the level of inequality the characters experience is so utterly extreme that I see it as rather a waste of the reader's outrage and disgust. The women of the Nether are constantly prey to rape and violence, and if they don't obey their masters, they can be magically "Dolled, cursed, and Charmed into obedience."

I found Will utterly creepy, and was mystified about how they had gotten together. As he thinks himself:

"He wanted to claim her, possess her and take her fire into himself."

The fact that it is a charmed choker is all too appropriate. As she says to him,

"You want me to be someone I'm not. You want me to play the game, don't you? That's what you mean when you say you want me to work with you. You want me to stop being such a pain in the arse. But what you're really saying is that you want me to stop being who I am."
(spoiler show)

 

Suffice it to say that A Little Knowledge is a difficult read, and much of the moral outrage it generated felt anything but constructive. But perhaps the goal is to use extremes to highlight the problems found in a more nuanced way in our world. Apart from sexism, the book also confronts racism and rampant consumerism. Even leavened with Newman's sly wit, it wasn't precisely an easy or pleasant read, yet I was sucked in all the same. I was so driven to understand how the world worked and how the characters got to where they were that I promptly turned around and binge-read the previous three books. In some sense, A Little Knowledge is also a game-changer for the series, putting events into motion that are sure to have serious impact on the Split Worlds. I may still be perplexed as to why I found these books so compulsively readable, but definitely count me in for the next one.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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text 2016-09-03 22:20
Ramblings Regarding August Reading
An Old-Fashioned Unicorn's Guide to Cour... An Old-Fashioned Unicorn's Guide to Courtship - Sarah Rees Brennan
World of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal - Aaron Rosenberg,Christie Golden

Favorite book of the month: An Old-Fashioned Unicorn's Guide to Courtship by Sarah Rees Brennan, who is basically like magic for me all the time.

Longest in pagesWorld of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal by Aaron Rosenberg and Christie Golden, at 436 pages

 

Total books read: 14

Total pages read: 1,851

Re-reads: 1

Average pages per book: 132

Average pages per day: 59

  

Scores:

1: 0

2: 0

3: 13

4: 1

5: 0

Did not finish: 0

 

Average: 3.07

 

 

So this month was clearly "dark fantasy short story" month for some reason. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that I could read those in short burst on WoW loading screens. The fact that the longest book I read all month was World of Warcraft related is also connected to this, I'm quite sure. 

 

At any rate, it was a slow month. I will cheerfully read any short story Rosamund Hodge writes, though, and I enjoyed the crop of them I sucked down this month. Well-done short stories are a weakness of mine, and it's nice to find someone who manages them so consistently without them reading too similarly. 

 

September, though, is gearing up into a very solid reading month--the Halloween Bingo is going to be loads of fun, and I can't wait to scare myself senseless and watch everyone else doing so as well! 

 

How did everyone's August reading go? Anyone else super ready for weather where curling up with a good book in front of a fireplace will be valid? Who else is doing the Halloween Bingo? 

 

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review 2016-07-03 22:53
Where women can't ask for directions
An Accident of Stars - Foz Meadows

An Accident of Stars

by Foz Meadows

 

Until the death of Google Reader, I was a regular subscriber to Foz Meadows' blog, so I was absolutely delighted to have the chance to read her book. I think I would have been absolutely captivated by Accident of Stars when I was younger. Thematically, it's a coming-of-age story in a creative high fantasy world, and not only are the majority of protagonists teenagers, but the story is also blissfully devoid of love triangles, self-image issues, and school-related angst. Sadly, I've since become rather more jaded. The story is an homage to traditional high fantasy, but with a strongly feminist slant. As an almost exact contrast to standard epic fantasy, almost all of the characters of importance--protagonists, villains, and everything in between-- are female. Pure gender swapping was observable in everything from the matriarchal societies to the female role as warrior to the fact that in this world, it's women who can't ask for directions because

"Women were gifted by Sahu with the knowledge of orientation: admitting failure in that respect would open her up to mockery."

The message of the story, too, are equally blatant. Possibly because I was so cognizant of Meadows' role as social commentator, the feminism and seemed rather self-conscious to me. It's all fun, but felt so very self-aware that it prevented me from really getting into the flow of the story.

Accident of Stars follows something of a good-evil dichotomy of traditional epic fantasy. Our usurping villains are apparently Evil Incorporated™, even though we see very little of their dastardly plans, possibly because they're so much an afterthought to the meat of the tale. At least one of the villains appears to be evil for the sake of evil; the other has a motivation right out of an 1890s morality tale.

Seriously, what is with all these women and their obsession with childbirth? It's almost like they feel that a woman's life isn't complete without it, yeah? 

(spoiler show)

The characters themselves never quite came alive to me, perhaps because so much of their personalities and interactions are driven by the plot. I saw Gwen as the clearest example of this: although born on earth, Gwen creates a life for herself on the other world, including two partners and a child. Yet while she thinks about them often, it's in a plot-driven way: her lovers remain utter nonentities, their entire characters limited to their names and genders. I felt that the characters were shaped by the plot and message, not the other way around. The character I found most intriguing--and, not coincidentally, the only one I felt escaped the good-evil dichotomy-- was Yasha, a dictatorial outcast matriarch whose motives are murky for much of the story.

 

Even though I loved how Meadows eschewed a white default, I was somewhat troubled by the treatment of race and ethnicity. One of my major irritations is when authors reflect an oversimplification of the ethnicities of our world into theirs. In this case, apparently being black means you're Uyun. That's right; apparently your skin tone dictates your nationality, ethnicity, and culture, all in one go. Even though Uyuns live in other cities, their skin color defines them. No matter how self-consciously Meadows tries to explore racial issues, everything in the world she creates seems to depend on skincolor--nationality, culture, religion. Is there no intermixing, no sharing of cultures here? Why does everyone assume the black person from Earth is Uyun and thus apparently from that country rather than the area she lives in? I admit I'm disappointed. I would have expected her to have picked up on how problematic and limiting a skin-color-equals-nationality-equals-culture setup can be.

 

I'm not sure what genre is targeted, but personally I feel that this fits comfortably into the YA framework. Sure, parents may be a little uncomfortable at the idea of polyamory, but nothing is graphic, and the general themes-- empowerment, coming of age, etc-- seem to fit the genre rather well. I think this is the type of book I would have utterly adored as a high-schooler. It creates a world of acceptance and feminism, a sharp contrast to the rigid gender roles so often seen in high fantasy. If you're looking for a modern take on Narnia-style worlds-through-portals, Accident of Stars is worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~

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review 2014-06-01 01:39
"You want to change the rules? This is where you start."
Fortress Frontier - Myke Cole

Fortress Frontier (Shadow Ops #2)

by Myke Cole

 

When it comes to nasty surprises, magic doesn’t discriminate.  As a paper pusher par excellence, Colonel Alan Bookbinder may not get the respect his position demands—as he admits, the military “didn't give Purple Hearts for paper cuts”— but since he gets to go home at night to his loving wife and darling kids, he figures that it’s more than a fair trade. Unfortunately for Bookbinder, his comfortable life has just ended: suddenly, he is able to feel the magical currents around him.  Like so many others, Bookbinder has come up Latent, which means his life is now effectively owned by the US military’s SOC (Supernatural Operations Corps). Hustled away from his family and transported to an alien world, Bookbinder has to figure out his magical talent, put his military training to work, and figure out how to handle his rather difficult colleagues, all while the whole world is falling apart.

 

Fortress Frontier is an interesting continuation of Shadow Ops: the timing overlaps with certain sections of the first book, but about half of the story is told from Bookbinder’s point of view. Whilst Britton spends much of his time in the first book struggling against the SOC, Bookbinder is very much a willing part of the system.  I felt that the last book was fueled by pure rage; this one, not so much. At the same time, Bookbinder is a far more likable character. This added an interesting dimension to the story because I think Britton is a complete ass yet generally agree with his politics, whilst I really like Bookbinder and still am morally opposed to the imperialistic regime that he supports.  

 

As one might expect, Britton is still a major POV character in Fortress, and I found my previous dissatisfaction with the character congealing into pure dislike. Britton continues to claim that he can protect people, but when they get hurt or killed, he demands forgiveness, dodges blame, then reasserts control over whatever situation he has landed them in.  The responsibility for having destroyed peoples’ lives doesn’t give him the right to whatever pieces might still remain.  Honestly, I find his delusions rather terrifying. He repeatedly states that he’s “not going to let that happen,” as if he really believes that he can control the outcome. Basically, he’s an arrogant, self-justifying asshole.

 

Standard Britton form:

"Who the hell put you in charge?" Tsunami asked.

"I did," Britton said.

or

"Therese, please. I did what I had to. I got us out safe. They would have killed Marty. They would have experimented on those of us who didn't play ball."

[...]

"Fair doesn't enter into it, Oscar. You made choices. You are responsible for them."

[...]

"I was trying to save you! To save all of us."

"And you did that, at the price of Lord knows how many hundreds of others."

[...]

"I did what I had to, for all of us. It's not my fault it worked out the way it did.”

I pretty much agree with one character’s assessment of him:

"I've seen what you do. Whether you mean it or not, there are a lot of people dead because of you. I'll take my chances with the SOC."

Even stealing that student’s computer was an asshole move.  What if his dissertation had been on there?

(spoiler show)

Bookbinder, on the other hand, is the quintessential nerd; he believes that he has “all the leadership capability of a wet sock,” but when circumstances force him to take action, he shoulders the responsibility while still listening to those around him. I also enjoyed his self-deprecating humour.  One of my favorite scenes occurs after Bookbinder wakes up late in camp:

Bookbinder stood. "Why the hell didn't anyone wake me?"
"You looked peaceful, sir," Anan volunteered.

Bookbinder looked askance at Won, but the major only shrugged. "You did." [...]

Bookbinder nodded and shouldered his pack, sucking at his own water feed now. "Surely you must eat, sir," Dhatri said, his voice concerned.

"I can eat while we walk," Bookbinder replied. "We've lost enough time to my cherubic sleepy-time appearance."

In terms of secondary characters, I think Fortress is far stronger than Control Point.  Whilst some of the more frustrating characters still pop up—for example, I can never remember Downer’s given name, since “Debbie” seems to fit her personality so well— there are a host of new and entertaining personalities, and the new perspective brings humanity to some of the previously inhuman characters.  I think my favorites are probably Woon, a sarcastic and down-to-earth terramancer, and return character Crucible, who shows a whole new side of his personality to Bookbinder.  

 

My favourite scene with Crucible is probably the one in which they are deciding who gets to go on the suicide mission:

"You're making it back, sir. You owe me."
Bookbinder cocked an eyebrow at him. "I owe you?"

"You want me to run this place so you can run off and play some combo game of diplomat-hero? Well, you can drive the big car, and I drive the little car. But this is a shit job, and you're just sticking me with it so you can have an adventure. The least you can do is write me a weekend pass and put me in for a commendation. Hell, maybe a letter to the promotion board. If you're dead, you won't be able to put in the paperwork. That would just be wrong."

Bookbinder snorted. "Yeah, I guess it would."

"I'll see what I can do."

 

Oddly enough, one of the characters to get “humanized” was Harlequin, which I found to be very strange.  He actually goes through a moment in which he thinks, “and now you want me to commit murder,” which doesn’t really jive with his attitude in the last book.

(spoiler show)

The book also introduces some new dynamics in the magical world, including India’s Sahir Corps “Bandhav” relationship with the naga, and the nagas’ own tensions with the Agni danav.  I liked the complexity this added to the worldbuilding, although I had certain issues with the logic of some of the characters’ actions.

 

For one thing, what on earth was Bookbinder planning to do on the earth side without Portomancy to get him back? I wasn’t clear on what he was expecting, given that pissing off the naga basically destroyed any prospect of actually getting assistance back through their portal.

 

The next major logic fail, to my mind, was the whole Big Bear thing.  I never did figure it out: was his personality entirely fabricated? Whatever the case, the methods really don’t make sense: 

"Fear of magic is so deep-seated in the American psyche that people will do almost anything to defend themselves from it. If you're going to unseat that,make public, open Latency a fact on the ground, you're going to need a dramatic event."

…what, so assassination of major government figures by magic is going to make everyone feel all secure and cozy about it all?

 

I also had a sneaking suspicion that the rules surrounding portomancy changed in this book—was Britton always forced to port between worlds? I thought not.

(spoiler show)

The anger and drive of the last book are more subdued here, but the issues of freedom versus security continue to emerge.  As one Latent notes,

"What do you expect us to do? Lie still and let you kill us, imprison us, strip us of our humanity? You've outlawed our existence. You provide no options."

Many of the issues I found compelling in the last book—the problems of jingoism and imperialism, for one thing—are not really discussed here.  Dehumanization and exoticism of certain groups within the narrative continues; for example, take a conversation in which some of the characters are trying to decide who to go to for help:

"The Apache have already committed so many atrocities on camera that people will never get behind them. The masks, the Mountain Gods. They're too... alien. People follow... you know, other people. People like them."

What, so the Apache are no longer “people”?  

 

At the same time, I loved getting a glimpse of other countries’ attitudes towards magic; perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. was one of the most aggressive in militarization of magical forces.  As one speaker notes,

"Count on the US to do it completely wrong. [...] Firming up the walls for armories and combat outposts? Good use of Terramancy. Growing superfoods to feed the world? Threat to national security."

Overall, while I think the fury so tangible in Control is muted in Fortress, I think the stronger cast of characters more than made up for the difference. As for me, I've made the next book in the series my first summer purchase. I can't wait to find out what happens next.

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