Monday 30 April 2018

Books Received in April 2018

Many thanks as always to the publishers and publicists that send me books for review.

Head On by John Scalzi - This is set in the same world as Lock In (my review), which I really enjoyed.

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.
Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent's head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are "threeps," robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden's Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.
Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.
Is it an accident or murder? FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth-and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Fire Dance by Ilana Myer - Sounds interesting...

Palace intrigue, dark magic, and terrifying secrets drive the beautifully written standalone novel Fire Dance, set in the world of Last Song Before Night.
Espionage, diplomacy, conspiracy, passion, and power are the sensuously choreographed steps of the soaring new high fantasy novel by Ilana C. Myer, one woman's epic mission to stop a magical conflagration.
Lin, newly initiated in the art of otherwordly enchantments, is sent to aid her homeland's allies against vicious attacks from the Fire Dancers: mysterious practitioners of strange and deadly magic. Forced to step into a dangerous waltz of tradition, treachery, and palace secrets, Lin must also race the ticking clock of her own rapidly dwindling life to learn the truth of the Fire Dancers' war, and how she might prevent death on a scale too terrifying to contemplate.
Myer's novel is a symphony of secret towers, desert winds, burning sands, blood and dust. Her prose soars, and fluid movements of the politically charged plot carry the reader toward a shocking crescendo.

The Ghost, The Owl Written by Franco and Illustrated by Sara Richard - The artwork for this looks beautiful.

On a cool evening on the swamp, a figure appears dancing across the water. A human figure, but far from a human form. A Ghost, a young girl spirit that seems to have lost its way. A good Samaritan owl decides to help against the wishes of his animal brethren. What mysteries does the ghost girl hold the secrets to and what will happen when she and the owl unlock them together? Will they find out what happened to her? Will she find her way to where she needs to be? What will happen to the animals in the swamp and surrounding forest? An adventure with the most unlikely of pairs, The Ghost, the Owl.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke - The first line of this book is an amazing hook.

Poison. Treachery. Ancient spirits. Sieges. The Poison Wars begin now, with City of Lies, a fabulous epic fantasy debut by Sam Hawke.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me...
Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor's charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor's family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett - I loved his Divine Cities series (starting with City of Stairs) and can't wait to read this book.

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic--the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience--have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.

Friday 27 April 2018

Trade Route Maps

There's a pervasive idea the medieval Europe was a self-contained entity that knew nothing about - and had no trade with - distant lands. Two people have set up maps that show how interconnected the ancient and medieval worlds really are.

The first is a map by Sasha Trubetskoy of the Roman roads, done up as if they were modern subway routes. While Rome built roads so as to transport troops quickly, they also facilitated trade. Her map doesn't show water routes, which would have also been extensive, but it's fascinating looking at how far the empire's reach was. She's got some notes at the bottom where she lists the limitations of her map (she sometimes changed or created names, conflated two roads into one, that sort of stuff).

The second is by Martin Mnsson, which shows his third updated Medieval trade networks during the 11th and 12th Centuries. And they are EXTENSIVE. Consider where spices came from and how they were used in cooking. Consider the luxury goods the nobility desired. There's a fantastic book called The Alchemy of Paint by Spike Bucklow that goes into a lot of the exclusive materials used in art and where they were mined (and many came from outside Europe). Mnsson has a link where you can download a high definition version of his map.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Shout-Out: Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction, Edited by Bill Campbell and Francesco Verso

In its brief existence, Rosarium Publishing has worked hard in “introducing the world to itself” through groundbreaking, award-winning science fiction and comics. In combing the planet to find the best in each field, Rosarium's own Bill Campbell has found a fellow spirit in Italian publisher, Francesco Verso. Borrowing from the fine tradition of American underground dance labels introducing international labels' music to the people back home, Rosarium brings to you Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction, a thrilling collection of innovative science fiction originally published by Francesco Verso's Italian company, Future Fiction. Here you will find thirteen incredible tales from all around the globe that will not only introduce you to worlds you may not be familiar with but also expand your horizons and the horizons of the science fiction field itself.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Video: Tofu Legends

This is an interesting video showcasing a grandmother in rural China making tofu for the spring festival. They also show her fetching water, using several old style tools for pounding chilies and rice, cooking delicious looking meals and farming. It’s incredible that people still use some medieval technologies - and how effective they are.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Book Review: Good Guys by Steven Brust

Pros: interesting characters, good investigation

Cons: not immersive, lots of intuitive leaps the reader can’t always follow

Donovan, Marci and Susan work minimum wage for the Foundation’s North American division of Investigations and Enforcement. Their job is to keep the public from learning about the existence of magic by tracking down sorcerers who use magic to commit crimes. When members of their opposition organization, the Mystici, start dying in a mix of what might be magical or mundane means, the three investigate. But if the killer is going after horrible people, does stopping the murders really make them the good guys?

While I loved the premise, I found the execution disappointing. What interested me about the story was the dramatic recruitment story of Donovan, told on the dust jacket and the moral complexities of stopping a killer whose targets you agree should probably die. Instead of starting with a prologue of Donovan’s recruitment or showing it in a first person flashback, the author simply plops it into a rather dry conversation, stripping it of all emotion and impact. And when Donovan questions early on if what they’re doing makes them the good guys, you don’t know the characters well enough or understand the full context of the case, or the history of the Foundation, to even begin to have an opinion. Considering how much about the Foundation and the people working there that Donovan learns about during this case, it seems he doesn’t even know enough about who he’s working for to know if he’s on the right side (which to me sound like the kinds of things to question/learn about before you agree to work for them).

I know I’m getting older because I have a lot of trouble keeping names straight in books nowadays. And having most people go by first names until the end of the book when someone randomly used their last names, threw me. I had to look everyone’s full name to figure out who was being addressed.

The investigation was good though I found myself in that awkward position of sometimes feeling really smart - because I understood Donovan’s cryptic explanations - and sometimes feeling really dumb - because at times Donovan’s explanations jumped some steps that I couldn’t follow.

The characters were all interesting. Donovan’s really clever and I liked seeing him make intuitive leaps (even if I couldn’t always follow them). Seeing how he navigates a racist world was also interesting. I did question his decision to bring suspects to his apartment for interrogation and then just let them go. Seemed a stupid thing to do. Susan was probably my favourite character, being skilled at martial arts and otherwise kind of quirky. Marci felt a bit overpowered as a sorceress, though she does have a refraction period she has to wait between casting more powerful spells.

The world-building was ok. I didn’t quite understand the split between the Foundation and the Mystici, though I did grasp that their philosophy was different. I didn’t understand why slipwalks would cost so much after the initial preparation for the space. I also didn’t believe the accounting error could be found so quickly. 

The ending left me feeling disappointed. There’s a climactic battle that’s completely skipped over, a death that isn’t properly felt, and a resolution with consequences that don’t fit the crimes committed.

The book sounded great, but I wasn’t a fan of the execution.

Friday 20 April 2018

Movie Review: Radius

Directed by Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard

Pros: interesting premise, good acting, good pacing

Cons: limited answers

Liam wakes up from a car crash with no memory. As he walks towards town he notices people and animals mysteriously dying and fears he’s in a plague zone. But the truth he discovers is much worse.

I went into this movie knowing nothing about it and I enjoyed it a lot. The SF elements are minor but important, and add to the mystery of what’s happening.

It’s heavily character driven, with Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) trying to figure out what’s going on and then realizing that Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) is just as deeply involved. You can feel their frustration and fear as they struggle to get help while not getting caught by the police. The pacing is good, letting them learn/remember enough to keep things interesting.

My husband and I were left with some questions about how Liam’s … powers… worked, which I’ll mention a bit more in the spoiler section below.

The film kept me guessing and had a satisfying ending. 

*** SPOILERS ***

I wondered whether Liam’s powers were tied to him being alive or whether his body would have the same effect. My husband went a step further and asked if parts of his body would have the same effect as the whole. Could his nail clippings hurt someone? A severed finger? If so, would the range be the same or smaller due to the smaller size of the item? Obviously the film assumed that once he died the power died too (even though hair and nails keep growing for a while after death). This could have had an amazing horror ending by showing people drop dead as Rose got further away from him. But I was satisfied with the ending they used.

I found the ending to be a great twist because you really start to like Liam, so the reveals come as a kick to the gut.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Shout-Out: A Tracker's Tale by Karen Avizur

Welcome to the strange and perilous world of Katherine Colebrook: FBI special agent, Los Angeles… Trackers Division.

In Katherine’s world, werewolves, vampires, púcas, and other parasapien species – forced for centuries by human fear and prejudice to live at the fringes of society – have finally come out of hiding to demand their rightful place alongside us. It’s a fragile co-existence, fraught with mutual distrust: a new social contract for which the rules are still evolving. And when those rules break down – usually when a parasapien begins preying on humans – that’s when the Trackers step in. It’s their job to hunt them down and stop them by any means necessary. 
Within this elite unit, Katherine Colebrook is one of the best. Her psychic abilities made her a natural for the Trackers Division, allowing her to move between the parasapien and human worlds in ways that no other agent could. But Katherine’s calling hasn’t come without struggle and losses along the way. As a single mother, she must contend with her teenage daughter, Alexandra, who not only shares Katherine’s psychic abilities, but seems determined to follow the same dangerous path as her mother. 
And so, when Katherine’s latest assignment threatens to bring that danger too close home, she finds herself faced with the toughest challenge of her career: Can she protect her daughter’s life, while battling a ruthless adversary who’ll stop at nothing to destroy her?

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Video: Abduction

Dave gets abducted by aliens for a routine examination in this Chris & Jack video.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Pros: emotional complexity, fascinating characters, lots of twists, interesting setting

Cons: some issues with the timeline/distances travelled towards the end

When the terrorized daughter of the king witnesses one outrage too many, she steals an artifact that can open diviners to their magical heritage. While escaping, she runs into a young diviner who’s still angry and traumatized by her mother’s execution during the king’s Raid 11 years ago, when magic first disappeared. Together they learn that magic can be returned to the land. But the King sends his son and his general to hunt them down.

There are some great characters in this book. While I didn’t always agree with their choices (especially those of the hot tempered Zélie), I thought their decisions made sense based on their personalities, traumas, and the challenges they faced. I was impressed at the complexity of their emotions and how the author actually dealt with their emotions rather than simply letting the story brush trauma and consequences aside. The book deals with the aftermath of torture, of killing for the first time, of personal failure, of so many harsh emotions and conditions. I really understood the prince’s fear of magic and his desire to please his father, even as he realized what a monster the man was. I felt sorry for him. I also I loved seeing his sister’s growth throughout the book. I also liked how Zélie and Amari slowly learn to trust each other and become friends.

There were quite a few twists and turns, both in terms of the quest, but also in terms of people learning who they are in the face of various trials.

The setting was pretty cool and seemed to draw inspiration from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, particularly the language. Though the country in the book is called Orïsha, I don’t believe the maji religion takes any influence from the Yoruba’s religious practices of the same name (but please correct me if I’m wrong, wikipedia isn’t the best place to get information like this. And as an aside, I enjoyed looking up some of the unfamiliar words to see if they had real world significance. This isn’t necessary to enjoy the book, but why not learn some real culture/history too?). I loved the idea that people capable of magic were physically marked with white hair. The practice of magic itself required a mixture of innate ability and incantations, so it didn’t seem overpowered. I did like that various people questioned the wisdom of bringing magic back, of the problems that could arise if someone evil could wield offensive magic like fire. It treated magic like the dangerous weapon it could be in the wrong hands - or even the right ones.

The world feels very lived in and real. It was quite different from anything I’ve read before and I loved that. I really liked the ryders and wish I could have one. The geography became problematic towards the end, in terms of how quickly people could suddenly travel far distances, which I’ll discuss more in the spoiler section. Though, that’s possibly due to the map being out of scale from the distances the author envisioned.

While they’re not marked as an appendix, after the text comes an author’s note, a ‘behind the scenes’ annotated chapter 57 from the book, and a list of the Maji clans with their powers and the names of their gods. 

While the book wasn’t perfect, it’s unique setting and characters make it worth the read. There’s some romance and a good amount of action, particularly the fight scenes at the end. If you’re looking for a different kind of fantasy, give this a go.

*** SPOILERS ***

Don’t look at the map too closely when following their journey as some of the distances and features don’t make sense. Maps aren’t usually done by the author and tend to be more artistic than accurate, so consider it a rough guide rather than an absolute if, like me, you’re trying to figure out their route.

In terms of the timeline, I can accept that Inan rides like the wind to catch up to the others after leaving his guards behind in Chândomblé, but I was surprised by how willing he and Zélie were to waste a night before going in to rescue their friends at the bandit camp, and that they didn’t even consider sneaking in and avoiding the guards at the gate altogether. And once they befriended the bandits, they decide to stay an extra day for a party, even though they’ve only got 5 days to get to the island? Ignoring the fact that they’re celebrating prematurely, they justify this decision saying that getting a boat in Zaria cuts their travel time in half. Getting a boat in Zaria was always the plan, and it doesn’t cut their travel time down at all, as most of the distance they need to cover is over land. Now, if they took a boat down the river to Jemeta, I’d agree that that would cut down on travel time as land travel is slower and Jimeta would leave them much closer to the island (they do end up taking this route, but overland not by river boat). They’re also ignoring any travel time they’ll need once they get to the island, as the temple isn’t on the coastline on the map. There’s also the problem of how Inan’s men managed to find Zélie’s father and transport him from wherever he was hiding to the island in one day. (Even if you assume the dad was in custody already, he likely wasn’t being held on the East coast, ready to board a boat.) 

On a different note, It seemed a little too convenient for the organizers of the killing theatre in Ibeji to make the winnings so high that they went bankrupt upon someone’s winning the competition. I’m sure they would have kept some of that gold for themselves, enough to create a new cash grab entertainment show. It’s an instance where I thought the book ignored the complexities of life, which was unfortunate as it dealt so well with this in other areas.

Friday 13 April 2018

Video: Children of the Middle Ages

A lot of fantasy novels seem to ignore children, despite the fact that there would have been a lot of them. With high infant mortality rates (you have several children in the hopes that a few make it to adulthood) and limited birth control methods, families tended to be on the large side.

This documentary shows some of the evidence left behind by children and how historians read between the lines to find out what life was like for them, from the games they played to the work they did.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Shout-Out: How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens by Paul Noth

One thing still lacking in SF are a lot of good middle grade books to get kids between the ages of 8 and 12 interested in the genre. While I haven't read this, it sounds hilarious.
Happy Conklin Jr. is the only 10-year-old who has to shave three times a day. Hap's dad is a brilliant inventor of screwball products, and being a Conklin kid means sometimes being experimented on. So Hap has his beard, and his five sisters each have their own unique--and often problematic--qualities too. And although Hap's dad has made a fortune with his wacky inventions sold via nonstop TV infomercials, all of that money has gone to Hap's tyrannical Grandma. While she lives in an enormous mansion, the rest of the family lives in two rooms in the basement. 
All Hap has ever wanted is to have a normal life, so when he sees a chance to get rid of Grandma, he takes it! He only means to swap out Grandma, but when he--oops!--sells his whole family to the aliens, he wants nothing more than to get them back. He just has to figure out . . . how?

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Fantasy Book Cafe's Women in SF&F Month

Fantasy Book Cafe's doing her annual Women in SF&F month! I love reading the posts each year and adding books to the growing list of recommended books by women. You're allowed to recommend 10 books at a time (and the results are tallied, with books getting more recommendations going higher up the list).

There are a few posts up already, so go check it out!

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Book Review: One Way by S. J. Morden

Pros: interesting characters, fast paced, tense

Cons: a little obvious

In an attempt to save money, XO recruits convicts to man its mission to Mars and build its NASA contracted habitat. But Mars is a dangerous place and ‘accidents’ happen.

I really enjoyed this book. Frank’s an interesting narrator who knows about as much as the reader with regards to what’s going on. A lot of the mystery and suspense surrounds the aspects of the mission that the ‘crew’ aren’t aware of as they’re rushed through training and shipped off to Mars. 

I thought there was a good mix of characters in terms of personality and the reason they were behind bars. I did wonder why Brack was so obviously antagonistic towards the convicts, considering he needed the group to work together. Yes, they needed to stay in line, but he generally did more harm than good with his comments.

The depictions of life on Mars were great. A lot of care was obviously taken to point out the very real dangers of living and working there. 

Due to a lack of attention, it took me a while to realize that the opening quotes weren’t in chronological order as I’d expected. Pay attention to the dates so you can piece together the history of XO’s planning for - and problems regarding - the Mars mission. 

The story is fast paced. While I figured out one mystery quite early, the ending was still very tense and suspenseful. 

Friday 6 April 2018

Movie Review: Starman

Directed by John Carpenter, 1984

Pros: excellent soundtrack, some incredible acting, realistic human response

Cons: not sold on the romance, one special effect looks terrible

An alien comes to Earth in response to the Voyager welcome message. Shot down by the military, the alien takes on the form of the deceased Scott Hayden and forces the man’s wife, Jenny Hayden, to drive him to Arizona where he’s supposed to meet up with another ship. All the while being hunted by the military and a SETI agent.

I saw this once as a kid and remembered a lot more of it than I expected. While a few of the special effects didn’t age well (specifically the alien growing from a human baby into Jeff Bridges) most of them were low key and so still carry a bit of wonder to them. 

Jeff Bridges does a remarkable job as an alien who can’t walk right, talks with extra clear enunciation, demands explanations of unfamiliar words, and just feels OFF. It’s a challenging role and he sells it completely.

I was impressed how the minimalistic soundtrack ended up emphasizing the theme song - played when the alien uses ‘magic’ or when something sad or touching happens. It’s a masterful piece of conditioning, much like the shark theme in Jaws.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the romance. Everything happens so fast that I have trouble believing Jenny could go from one extreme to the other. Especially considering how child-like the alien is in some ways.

Unfortunately I suspect that if aliens were to visit the Earth this is the treatment they’d get. It’s sad that while we’ve come so far in some ways, we haven’t changed at all in others.

While not a movie I’d watch often, it is worth seeing once. It’s slow moving and character driven, but you really feel for the alien at the end.

Thursday 5 April 2018

StoryBundle's DRM free World Sci-Fi eBook Bundle

I haven't posted many of these ebook bundles lately, but this one's got some great stuff. I enjoyed Servant of the Underworld (read before I started reviewing) and Prime Meridian and thought the Apex Book of World SF 4 had some interesting stories. The Secret History of Moscow has long been on my 'to read' list.

Basically how these bundles work is you pay what you want (ETA: starting at $5) for the first group of books (in this case 4 titles: The Secret History of Moscow, Servant of the Underworld, The Apex Book of World SF 4, and A Small Charred Face). If you pay more than $15, you get all the other books as well. They're DRM free and in multiple formats (generally epub, mobi (for kindles), and/or PDF).

Check out the StoryBundle page to read more about the books.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Video: New Spice

Electric Lit has a round up of some fantastically funny videos by librarians, including this New Spice spoof on the Old Spice ads by BYU library. The other videos are mostly music video parodies and are very well done. I recommend checking them out (especially the Uptown Funk video).

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Book Review: Archangel by Margaret Fortune

Pros: tense, action packed, interesting characters


Roughly a year after the events of Nova, Michael Sorenson is now a soldier, working to evacuate people from stations and planets overrun by ghouls and squatters (humans infected by ghouls). When he’s offered a job working for research and development, he believes he’s helping save the human race from the alien threat. Then he uncovers signs of sabotage on the station. He searches for the saboteur even as the scientists search for a way to eradicate the ghouls, once and for all.

This is book 2 in the Spectre War series, and while you can read this volume without reading book 1, a lot of Michael’s motivations come down to what happened at the end of Nova. This book has a very different feel, being entirely about the military and how to attack and defend yourself against an incorporeal opponent. While there’s camaraderie, there’s no romance and I was astonished at how willing the author was to show that war means loss.

You don’t learn as much about Michael’s compatriots as I’d have liked, but they are an interesting bunch. The power play interludes between the Chairman, the Admiral, and the Doctor, were also great in terms of showing what was happening with the war outside R&D.

Though a lot of the science goes unexplained (like how ships travel the vast distances of space between planets and stations) there’s some great world-building. Though mentioned only briefly, the Order of the Spectre horrified me, but unfortunately didn’t surprise me as a religious belief system. The planet where R&D is stationed sounded quite beautiful, and I’d have loved to visit, ghouls notwithstanding.

The plot takes several interesting turns, and the ending, though not as shocking as that of Nova, was still unsettling in its implications. I can’t wait to see what happens next.