book review: leviathan wakes

I don’t really need more television in my life at the moment (we’re currently watching the third season of Fargo and chugging through Angel) but there’s a space opera show on SyFy called The Expanse. I’ve been hearing good things about it, and huzzah it’s based on a book series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham). I have way more room in my life for more books than more TV, so here we go.

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse. It’s got a couple of viewpoint characters: Holden and Miller. Miller is a detective on Ceres, and Holden starts off as the executive officer on an ice-hauling spacecraft. Things happen and soon the solar system is engulfed in war while these two are trying to do something about it.

It’s a good book. I enjoyed the politics, and the Firefly-esque nature of the ship-bound stuff. A lot more characters died than I expected, and the only alien in the book was pretty intense. I appreciated the consequences that radiation poisoning had on characters, even though they could get most of their organs regrown. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very well executed. The plot kept the problem-solution-escalation dance spinning nicely and the bouncing between viewpoints kept me reading.

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book review: the laundry files (complete series)

I have been a fan of Charles Stross’ work for many years. I remember reading Accelerando and liking it once I got my head around it, and enjoying the near-future police procedural books like Halting State but it was Glasshouse and Neptune’s Brood that turned me into an “I will read whatever this gentleman puts out” kind of reader. So it’s a little weird I haven’t read his Laundry Files series.

On the surface this seems made for me. I love the confluence of lovecraftian mythos and modern technology stories. I enjoy tales of rebellious smartasses in confining structures they were not made for but have to deal with. But for whatever reason I never got into Stross’ version of that. Much like my filling the Dark Tower gap last year, I decided to go for it in 2017. I read the entire series in order (mostly) from February to April and put my thoughts in this review as I went. There are a couple of later additions to reviews, mostly to change speculations about my opinions to solidify them a bit. At the end of the review I do suggest my top three stories to read if you don’t want to commit to a seven novel + assorted short works series.

Short orientation: The Laundry is a British governmental department dealing with “things humans were not meant to know.” It turns out the multiverse is leaky and math that looks like magic (and that’s much easier to do with late 20th-early 21st century computing power) can summon tentacly beasts and other malign entities from nearby or far realities. The Laundry tries to clean up those messes.

the atrocity archives

Bob Howard works a desk job for the Laundry fixing their IT systems. He asks to get assigned to active duty and gets to help extract Mo from the United States when her brain’s contents have been tagged as an interesting asset by the Americans. Things happen and Bob saves the universe from a Nazi-summoned energy-sucking entity.

One of the things I liked most about this book is how Bob’s physical solving of problems amounts to figuring out a clever way to call for help and get it there quickly. I wasn’t a big fan of the way Bob’s female superiors were portrayed as harpies worrying about the stupid inconsequential shit while the boys bluffly went off to save Mo and the world.

concrete jungle

In this short story Bob investigates the intersection of a Gorgon effect with the UK’s rampant surveillance camera culture in the middle of a bureaucratic power-play back at the Laundry’s office. Bob’s female supervisors (who were written as loathsome characters) get removed for their crimes and I hope the gendering of nags getting in the way of the serious work done by fun bros will ease up as the series progresses.

the jennifer morgue

The Jennifer Morgue takes Bob Howard and puts him into a Bond movie, but one where the agent we spend the most time with has to deal with an underpowered smartcar and the ignominy of wearing a suit while thwarting a possessed billionaire trying to summon something from the briny depths (in violation of many secret treaties).

I never like plot devices where a character is forcibly attached to another character against their wills so the way that happened in this book gave me a bit of the squicks, but otherwise I appreciated this one. Falling into Bond tropes (despite how unrealistic they are for secret agents) is the driver of the plot but the fact they are Bond clichés is part of the villain’s master plan.

This one also did veer away from the women in power as naggy evil bitches trope, which let me breathe a sigh of relief (I was pretty sure it’d happen since I knew Stross’ more mature work, but am glad I didn’t have any more books of it to sit through).

down on the farm

This short story has Bob investigating the asylum where Laundry field agents are sent when their brains break from their mathematical sorcery. There’s a clever enough “so that’s what’s going on!” reveal but because the story was so short there wasn’t enough build-up or room to complicate it.

equoid

“Equoid” is a short novella about unicorns. But Lovecraftian unicorns part of the larger Shub-Niggurath meme. Bob heads out into the country to check up on a thing and ends up in a tentacly horrific mess. My favourite aspects of this story included the twists to what could have been a very predictable plot, and the specific in-continuity addressing of the role Lovecraft plays in the Laundry Files universe. It’s my favourite of the short Laundry works, and I’d argue the best entry point to the series.

“Equoid” was originally published free online at Tor.com, but I had to go into the Wayback Machine to find the copy linked to above.

the fuller memorandum

In The Fuller Memorandum Bob Howard and his wife Mo O’Brien are dealing with cults. Doomsday cults. Bob’s dangerous boss goes missing and he’s making mistakes so his nice boss is sending him home for stress leave but there are Russians in London and the timeline for the end of the world has been pushed up.

This book got way more violent and darker than the previous ones felt (though I’d say “Equoid” is the most viscerally unsettling of all the stories). Daycares are terrorist targets and there’s a lot of death magic going on. It was fine, but less jokey and fun as Bob is maturing his way up the hierarchy of the Laundry. I appreciate that the evil management of bureaucracy shtick wasn’t focused on a harpy in this book.

overtime

“Overtime” is a short Xmas story about forecasting Ops and the imminent onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The belief in Santa as the walls between realities get weaker is causing a tentacly monster to come down the Laundry’s chimney and Bob, who’s working the holiday night shift, has to deal with it. It is an okay story but nothing special.

the apocalypse codex

The Apocalypse Codex is about infiltrating an American megachurch that has some heretical beliefs (involving waking sleeping gods and putting mind-control bugs in people who don’t buy into the theology willingly). This is also the first of the novels that has Bob in a management role. I appreciated the “learning how to let your team to the job” aspects, though Bob does get to do some stuff himself too.

My biggest problem with the book is the scale of the aftermath. Big things happen to thousands of people in Colorado in this story and I would think dealing with that would be difficult at the least, so I hope it’s not swept under the rug. Stross usually is pretty good about following up on aftermath so I’m not too worried.

The other problem with this book was that there wasn’t enough Mo, and there was a Mo substitute. I understand why the story needed someone other than Mo in the badass superspy role, but that Persephone Hazard was so undifferentiated from Mo made it fall a little flat. The characters in general felt more plot-expedient than actual people, but maybe that’s just familiarity wearing through.

the rhesus chart

I think The Rhesus Chart is my favourite book in this series. Though there wasn’t as much aftermath from The Apocalypse Codex as I expected there is mention of some of those meetings. The great part of this book is that it’s a vampire story. But of course vampires don’t exist. Mo lays out all the ways that vampires as portrayed in fiction wouldn’t work, from caloric intake needs to turning the entire global population into vampires and all of that. But then some high-flying quants in an investment bank become vampires and the story unfolds.

I liked it because the story brought us out of some of the “terrible world shaking doom” rut the main novels could have been settling into; this is actually a pretty personal small-stakes story. I always like “real science” vampire explanations and the “magic is computation” conceit of the Laundry Files led into some interesting work with that. I also loved the banker/vampire-talk. They were using Scrum management techniques and all the buzzwords, because they were just a startup entering an industry where the dominant players were very old and entrenched.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion was the vampire-hunter, though I’m glad she was introduced into the story quite late so we didn’t have to spend much time with her.

the annihilation score

The Annihilation Score is a Laundry Files book about superheroes and policing, but more importantly it’s a Mo O’Brien centred story. After the vampire threat lay waste to the Laundry (and Bob and Mo’s marriage) in The Rhesus Chart, Mo is put in charge of dealing with the outbreak of super-abilities among people who aren’t sorcerors.

It’s about PR and what a superhero uniform looks like, and explaining actions to very powerful government people, especially when there’s a racist super tossing trucks at counter-demonstrators vs the much more powerful djinn summoner hiding in a friendly neighbourhood mosque. Politics yo.

It was good. I found the marriage-breaking-up stuff good and humanizing along with the demon violin infiltrating Mo’s head, but needing it to do her job. Again, this one made management seem like a not-so-terrible thing if done properly, which makes me wonder what I’m becoming.

the nightmare stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is a Laundry Files novel about an alien invasion, but by faerie. This one doesn’t have Mo or Bob in it, and uses one of the vampires from The Rhesus Chart, Alex, as the main protagonist. The Laundry is moving to Leeds and there are prognostications that things are going to go badly.

The faerie are gracile hominids whose world has been destroyed by tentacly beasts and magic (the sort of thing the Laundry is trying to avoid on Earth), who use magical geas as their will to power instead of language. They’re brutal and inhuman and one of their spies with a bit more empathy than her species would prefer gets involved with the invasion (and – spoiler alert – turning it around).

It was fine, but I felt like I’d read this plot before in Stross’ Merchant Princes series. Again, we’ve got knockoffs of the original Laundry characters playing roles that aren’t very dissimilar from what the originals used to be, which makes the originals feel retrospectively thinner and more puppety. I liked how it ended, but the situations weren’t enough to make up for the characters.

series thoughts

And here we are, all caught up as of April 2017. (There’ll be another Laundry Files novel coming out this summer.) I’m not sure it was to the series’ benefit to read them all in two months like this. You can see a bit more of the formula to the series, the strings holding up the puppets, and the repeated explanations of how things work that you remember from the book you read last week.

In general though, I like the books. If I’m recommending the highlights for someone who doesn’t want to plow through the whole array in order, I’d suggest “Equoid,” The Fuller Memorandum and The Rhesus Chart as the three to start with, and then fill in bits afterwards if you like those.

book review: lilith’s brood

Octavia Butler wrote these three books I read in a one volume collection called Lilith’s Brood. They’re sort of generational novels about humans who’ve been rescued by aliens after we destroyed most life on Earth.

In Dawn we follow Lilith as she’s awoken by the aliens on their ship and taught about what’s happened and what the aliens want them to do. See, the aliens want to incorporate humans into their genome (they’re biological collectors) and they want to put the humans back on Earth in a few carefully chosen areas so they can make them into something else. They’re totally fascinated by cancer, which allows the aliens to do all sorts of cool new things. Also the aliens have three genders including one that basically is there to manipulate DNA. The aliens want the humans to cooperate with them and choose Lilith to be their intermediary. By the end of the book she’s got the remaining humans ready to be rereleased on Earth, though she’s hated as a species traitor.

Adulthood Rites is about Lilith’s son and how he tries to get the rebel humans on Earth to accept their alien patrons. The humans who hybridize with aliens get to be practically immortal and have alien hybrid babies, while the ones who resist have all been sterilized and will grow sick and die. It’s kind of brutal. By the end of this book most of the resisters are sent to Mars where they can have children without interference from the aliens.

Then in Imago the protagonist is the first of the intermediary gender alien human hybrids that’s ever been born to a human mother who happens to be Lilith (families by this point usually have two human and two alien parents). This person is hated and feared and is desperate to find humans it can have sex with. By the end it does.

What I loved about the books was that they didn’t take the perspective of the human resisters. It’s always about the people who are adapting and accommodating themselves to the aliens, which is very interesting and different.

These books are weird because they’re pretty much all about the drive to procreate. Once the aliens get involved, people find the touch of their human lovers gross if they don’t have an alien with them. It was all very interesting but I didn’t quite get why everyone within minutes is pairing off and trying to repopulate the planet. It’s like there aren’t any other concerns that anyone has in these books beyond their bodily security and fucking. To me that’s weird, but that’s why I read science fiction.

book review: boxers & saints

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.

The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.

Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.

book review: hilda and the midnight giant

Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Midnight Giant is a beautiful comic. It’s a story about a little girl and her mom who live out far from town, and are being harassed by anonymous messages telling them to leave. And Hilda is pretty sure there’s a giant as tall as a mountain out watching them. Hilda does not want to go live in the nasty old town so she tries to negotiate with the tiny invisible people who live in their area and want her and her mother gone.

It’s cartoony with a purplish palette, and Hilda is clever and cute and makes perfect use of her fantastical world. The negotiation with the different layers of invisible government is all kinds of awesome. It works as a story about colonialism and who gets to live where too.

book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).