Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

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In the tradition of World War Z, Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypseis essentially the oral history of the robot uprising and the human resistance. This is not a particularly original idea in science fiction. Indeed, machines overthrowing their human masters is probably one of the most common tropes there is. Wilson has a Ph.D. in Robotics which helps ground the proceedings in at least the trappings of science, and the narrative vehicle of the narrator transcribing recordings of the war provides a certain freshness. Although, the concept of a human survivor transcribing the robots’ own recordings of the war is an idea that I felt deserved more than simply being a framing device.

The novel follows about six main characters whose lives become integral to the war effort. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the frame, none of these characters have any real depth to them. They all felt as though they were carrying out plot-driven actions, or acting out interesting ideas. For all that the novel and its concept provide scope for a vast overarching view of the war, the so-called robopocalypse lacked immediacy. This is less a novel than a series of vignettes.

Robopocalypse is a fast moving, action packed blockbuster of a novel. But outside of the action pieces and the robotics, it’s ultimately empty. The Sentient AI breaks free and decides to destroy humanity in a handful of pages, largely because that’s the sort of things Sentient AIs do in books about the Robot Apocalypse. The humans fight back because otherwise there would be no story. Sadly disappointing.

Book Review: Curses! A F**ked-Up Fairy Tale by J.A. Kazimer

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Curses! A F**ked-Up Fairy Tale lives up to its title. J.A. Kazimer has concocted an occasionally hilarious pastiche of twisted fairy tales and hardboiled noir. Neither of these are particularly original, but the precise combination presents some novelty, and the author is clearly having a great deal of fun.

The narrator, RJ, is mistaken for a private eye in New Never City and hired to solve Cinderella’s murder by her not-so-ugly stepsister, Asia. RJ is, in fact, a villain on a forced vacation by the Villain’s Union for post-villainous-related stress. He is also suffering under a curse that leaves him entirely unable to refuse damsels in distress. Then the bodies start piling up.

Sadly, after an intriguing and amusing opening, Curses! Descends into a confused murder mystery that relies a little too heavily on the fairytale jokes and references. The conceit felt stretched. J.A. Kazimer was clearly enjoying herself writing this, and there are certainly moments of genuine hilarity, but on the whole the mix of humor, fairytales, and noir didn’t quite cohere.

 

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

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Connie Willis combines time travel, Victorian comedy of manners, and London during the Blitz into To Say Nothing of the Dog, a charming and delightful novel nominally about the search for a Bishop’s Bird Stump. Quite what a Bishop’s Bird Stump actually is remains largely irrelevant except that it instigates the time travel and Victorian shenanigans.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is part of Willis’ shared universe of time-traveling historians. It takes its name and a certain amount of its humor from Jerome K. Jerome’s humorous Victorian travelogue: “Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog” which I had never heard of, but was inspired to read.

Time travelling historian Ned Henry spends a good portion of his time bumbling through Victorian England and encountering a series of eccentrics. Connie Willis has created a coherent universe out of time travel and a wealth of Victorian historical and literary references. The mystery is engaging and, perhaps more importantly, the humor does not feel forced. I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog immensely, but then, time travel hijinks and Victoriana are just my cup of tea.

 

Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 92, May 2014

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The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye

Matthew Kressel’s story unfolds slowly like an intricate puzzle. There is a beautiful, dreamlike quality to this tale of the far future, where the vast All-Seeing Eye consumes stars and knowledge and finds a problem it can’t quite solve. The dark undertones emerge gradually. A whole universe is unveiled through only three characters. For me this was the highlight of the issue.

A Gift in Time

Maggie Clark tells the story of Mouse, a young appraiser in love with his boss, who can travel through time, and brings back items in an attempt to impress Ezra. This is a different sort of time travel story, more a character piece. The time travel is largely unexplained, and almost incidental to the exploration of the characters, or more specifically, of Mouse. Enjoyable and filled with just the sort of period detail and references that I enjoy.

 

Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds

I collect titles, especially odd or off kilter ones. E. Catherine Tobler’s “Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” has exactly the sort of title that would peek my interest. The story itself is a dreamlike post-apocalyptic fable following one woman’s trek towards the sea. There is a sense of vast depth and unanswered questions that give it its power.

 

Night of the Cooters

Howard Waldrop’s story of a small town in Pachuco County is essentially a western version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. No names are named, but it seems to take place largely concurrently with the events of the novel. It’s a fun little twist on the old idea. Cowboys and Aliens done right.

Beluthahatchie

Andy Duncan’s story of an African American blues player in hell is filled with folklore and period detail. This version of hell is a plantation and John and his music bring unexpected hope.

 

Book Review: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

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Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson is an interesting experiment. It is a collaboration with the band Rush, and a novelization of their 19th studio album. I have not heard the album, nor am I a particular fan of rush. I’m familiar with Anderson largely through his Dune books co-written with Brian Herbert. All of which is to say that I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I started this book.

Essentially the novel is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale set in a steampunk world of alchemy, lost cities, pirates, airships, and carnivals against the backdrop of a grand contest between order and chaos, between the Watchmaker and the Anarchist with the main character stuck in the middle. Owen Hardy lives in the Watchmaker’s world of order and precision but naively dreams of something more. His dreams take him on a series of adventures across the world.

The novel has the quality of a fairy tale. Anderson’s prose is breezy and effective, but he seldom delves deeply into the many ideas that are raised. The conflict between the Watchmaker and the Anarchist that is so prominent at the start, disappears for a large stretch then reappears for a somewhat lackluster climax. There were a lot of elements, a lot of moving parts, obviously based on songs from the album, and Anderson has done a very good job of tying them into a coherent and intriguing story. It was an enjoyable read, but in the end, Clockwork Angels leaves a few too many loose narrative strands dangling.

**Received NetGalley Copy for Review

Book Review: The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes

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The Garden of Stones is the first part of Mark T. Barnes’ Echoes of Empire series that will be concluding later this month. This is an epic, high fantasy series filled with magic, fantastical races, war, cutthroat politics, romance, and vast, intricate world building. This book places me in an interesting position. Despite being an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for almost my entire life, despite reading the Lord of the Rings multiple times before I was even in high school and devouring the Silmarillion as a comfort book, epic fantasy is not my preferred subgenre. With a few isolated exceptions, I have largely avoided high fantasy, and its science fiction counterpart, the space opera. This is odd because I do enjoy cutthroat politics, chess matches played out across nations, and I appreciate intricate world building, two elements that form a major backbone of this sort of novel. This is a longwinded way of saying that The Garden of Stones is not the sort of fantasy novel I usually choose to read.

As expected, the world building is the absolute highlight of the novel. Mark T. Barnes has constructed a vast world of fantastical races, ancient history, shifting alliances, magic, and highly advance technology. It is a living, breathing place filled with details and little touches that make it feel real and lived in. Even with over 500 pages, the reader is left feeling as if they have barely scratched the surface of this world. The preponderance of details, however, also drags down the narrative. Barnes has a refreshing confidence in the reader’s ability to catch up and figure things out for themselves. Information comes thick and fast, often with little to no explanation. Backstory is parceled out slowly. Even with the character list and glossary provided at the end, keeping the various factions, races, even terms straight was a constant challenge.

The characters, likewise, took some time to come alive on the page, and the plot is occasionally meandering. The central conflict between the reluctant warrior-poet Indris and the dying but still ambitious Corajidin builds slowly, and unfortunately, the central romance between Indris and Corajidin’s daughter never quite convinced me. It is important to remember, however, that this is only the first part of a trilogy,  and that despite its density and length The Garden of Stones is only a beginning.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun

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A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is a delightful blend of folklore and magical realism with a coming-of-age-story in a small town in British Columbia. Leo Kreutzer and his friends are outsiders, mixed, neither natives nor white. Their town is controlled by drug-dealers and along the Highway of Tears native girls are going missing. Life for Leo and his friends is one of quiet, understated desperation. Into this world of friendships and tension comes an otherworldly girl with unnaturally white skin. Her very presence sends out ripples throughout the community, and slowly but surely things start to go very wrong.

Adrianne Harun has created a fully realized and populated world that feels utterly real. This is first and foremost a character study. And each of the four central characters is believably flawed and sympathetic. The magic and supernatural arrives slowly, unperceptively and is presented largely through folktales and stories that are interspersed in conversation with the narrative.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is a meandering and magical first novel. It has a dreamlike reality and beautifully gripping prose. The final attempts to tie all the narrative threads together was, perhaps less successful than intended, but it is nonetheless a wonderful debut and engrossing read.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: Couch by Benjamin Parzybok

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Benjamin Parzybok’s Couch follows three roommates epic quest to move their couch and save the world. Their journey takes them from Portland to the highlands of Ecuador and beyond with the ever-present, possibly malignant, couch in tow. Parzybok finds a magic in the absurdity, but never slips into outright parody. This is a story of ancient powers, mystical objects, ancient societies, and the fate of the world, that is improbably told through the moving of furniture.

Thom is a former hacker of some renown, who has recently lost his IT job and his girlfriend. He finds an apartment with Eric, a small-time con man who is never quite as clever as he thinks he is, and Tree, a strange man with possibly clairvoyant dreams. They are forced to move out when an unfortunate incident with a waterbed floods the apartment and they and the couch are evicted. What starts as bad day becomes increasing bizarre. No matter what they try, they can’t seem to get rid of the couch. Despite all logic, it seems to be leading them somewhere and worse, far worse, someone seems willing to kill to get it.

The three central characters and their relationship are well captured. Thom is clearly the central figure and his efforts to remain rational and skeptical in the face of absurdity and magic are an anchor for the novel. Less successful are Eric and Tree, who despite Parzybok’s attempts can feel a little one note. On their journey, they encounter a parade of oddballs and eccentrics, a staple of the genre. At the start, there were moments where it seemed as though the author had watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? about half a dozen times and decided that all it was really missing was a big, orange couch. The novel, however, quickly developed its own distinct flavor.

The most surprising thing about Couch is that it is not a comedy. Its premise is ridiculous, and neither the author nor the characters ever forget that. But the novel never descends or even flirts with outright spoof or farce. Parzybok treats the epic, world-saving moving of a couch with knowing but genuine seriousness, and succeeds, partly because he doesn’t force it to be longer than it needs to be. This is a first novel, and some of the cracks do show, but it is a fascinating jumble of ideas and is a delightful read. Personally, I had trouble putting it down. Highly recommended.

 

Book Review: The Cryptid Files: The Loch Ness Monster by Jean Flitcroft

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The Loch Ness Monster is the first book in Jean Flitcroft’s Cryptid Files series. This is a YA novel that intersperses facts about the Loch Ness Monster with the story of young Vanessa Day and her family.

Vanessa’s mother was a scientist who spent her life studying cryptids and cryptozoology. Still reeling from her mother’s death, Vanessa has latched onto her cryptid files and theories as her last link to her mother. On a family trip to Loch Ness, with her father’s new girlfriend, Vanessa takes the opportunity to try and solve the mystery herself.

This is a book for younger readers so the focus is on imparting knowledge about the Loch Ness monster. The plot is thin but it doesn’t need to be anything more. Flitcroft has done her research and has captured an appropriate sense of awe and wonder. All in all The Loch Ness Monster was an enjoyable little fantasy.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for review