Thursday, April 11, 2019

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Lee’s Machineries of Empire sci-fi trilogy that started with Ninefox Gambit. The first book introduced a multi-system space empire that rigorously follows calendric rituals that control their impressive space machinery and create magic-like effects, like a hive-mind that controls the soldier cast. They’re in a constant war against a mysterious alien enemy, and the heresy within their own system, as deviations from the calendric rituals causes the entire system to break down. I didn’t like the first book, mostly due to a messy plot, uninteresting characters and chapters in points of view of characters that die at the end of them. I therefore almost didn’t pick up Raven Stratagem when I noticed it in my local library.

I’m glad I gave it a chance. The second book is much better than the first. The arch-traitor Shuos Jedao has taken over a swarm—a space fleet—and though he seems to be aiming it against the enemy and winning too, the politicians want him destroyed. During the most of the book, the plot follows the attempts to take Jedao down, only to turn into something else in the end, elevating it above the ordinary.

The narrative was vastly better than in the first book. There were no mathematical calculations dominating the action (the first was heavy on them), the enemy that was a no-show in the first book made an appearance, making the endless warfare seem justified, and there were fewer POV characters, none of which die just to advance the plot. The only character that didn’t get his own point of view was Jedao, which was odd, considering that he’s the main character. The lack is explained at the end, but it kind of felt more like a cheap trick to fool the readers than anything else.

In general, the author keeps the cards so tight that the plot starts making sense only in the last couple of chapters. It’s not necessary a bad thing, but there were stretches in the middle that seemed fairly pointless and dragged the narrative quite a lot, only to make sense at the very end. I think I would’ve enjoyed them more if the plot hadn’t been so obscure.

The characters are all heroes in their own point of view and villains in everyone else’s, which makes them interesting. It also keeps the reader guessing to the end, as everyone is prone to betray everyone else. Despite that—or because of it—the main characters were fairly likeable and I rooted for them all, although only superficially, as I feared to the end that they would all get killed like in the first book.

All in all, Raven Stratagem was an interesting book, with a world vastly different from other sci-fi out there. I’ll definitely read the last book too, what I couldn’t have imagined doing after the first book.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third in Chambers’s sci-fi series set in the same universe with loosely connected characters but no common plot. And sadly, it’s the least interesting of them. A huge disappointment even, especially after the delightful A Closed and Common Orbit, a story of an AI struggling with its identity.

The book is set on a space fleet of humans who have left the earth centuries ago and now try to maintain their traditional way of life in a universe where they’re no longer alone, and where settling on planets is a viable option. It has five point of view characters, each with their own chapters. There’s an old archivist entertaining an alien visitor, a harried mother of two, a teenager rebelling against his environment, a young woman in charge of the dead, and a young man from outside the fleet. Each character is perfectly ordinary, living a perfectly ordinary life. And that’s the problem with this book.

The characters aren’t interesting in any way. They don’t get a growth arch, or change in any way. They’re static props living their perfectly normal lives. The chapters are vignettes of their lives in various points in time, with no continuity between the chapters. There are no connections between the characters, except a couple of chance encounters that don’t really have any impact in their lives. So mostly we follow the mother putting her children to bed, the teenager testing his boundaries, and the others at their work, chapter after chapter. Nothing happens.

The book has absolutely no plot. I didn’t even know it’s possible to write a book with no plot. Nothing the characters do has any impact on the outside world, and no outside force impacts them. They just are. There’s a major event at the beginning that in normal book would’ve been the mid-point turn, with the rest of the book dealing with the aftermath. Here, it’s just another vignette with no impact whatsoever, if you don’t count a child having nightmares about it; not exactly a plot event.

Here, the mid-point turn was the death of a point of view character, an underhanded turn that destroyed what little enjoyment I had with the story, as that character was the most interesting one. And then the death didn’t affect the plot in any way. It touched the other characters briefly, they made adjustments accordingly, and went on with their lives. A huge disappointment.

In a word, the book is boring. If the aim was to show that humans are humans no matter where they live, the same could’ve been achieved with fewer chapters—and with a proper plot binding them together. The hugely original environment, the space fleet, is just a prop and an endless source of boring lectures. The characters could’ve been set anywhere, and they would’ve been the same. I don’t know why the author chose to write this book after the highly imaginative predecessors, which makes it even more disappointing than it otherwise would’ve been. The book is nominated for a Hugo Award this year, and I have to assume it’s solely because people liked the previous books so much. This one has nothing to recommend itself.

Friday, April 05, 2019

The Savior by J.R. Ward: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Savior by J.R. Ward

The Savior is the seventeenth book in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy series, and a solid addition. What makes her books great is how she returns to old characters and continues their stories, in good and bad. This time it was John Matthew’s turn, and his arc was the best in the book, emotional and heart-breaking, as he ponders his likely death and his life. The conclusion of that story-line was especially satisfying.

The love story was between Murhder, a disgraced member of the brotherhood, and Sarah, a human scientist. It wasn’t the main focus of the book though, and they didn’t even meet until later in the story. They both had personal issues to deal with—him with his madness, her with the death of her fiancĂ© and the revelations that brought—and those carried the book nicely. The love story was more of an insta-love type and not terribly interesting, but nice. A great addition to their story was Nate, a young vampire who has been used as a Guinea pig in human experiments, that the two of them rescue.

As is usual, there was also an ongoing story that focuses on the bad guy; this time about Throe who wants to usurp the crown. Luckily it didn’t dominate the book, as he’s not a very interesting foe. The climax of his story seems to tie with Ward’s other series about fallen angels, if I read it correctly, so there’s that to look forward to.

Unlike usually, there wasn’t a new character introduced that will become the focus of the subsequent books. I hope that doesn’t mean the series is coming to its end. There’s still Lassiter, who got his great moment in this book, and who could use his own book. I hope we’ll get that one eventually too, especially if the characters from the parallel series will show up in this one.

All in all, this was a good solid book that I gobbled down in two marathon reading sessions that lasted till small hours of the night. It wasn’t the best book in the series by any definition, but it was better than the two previous books, and it got me to take out the tissues, so I’m happy with it.


The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve read a couple of other books too that I’ve neglected to write a review of. First one is The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal, the follow up to her great The Calculating Stars novel, an alternative history where the humankind is racing to Mars to escape the dying earth. In this book, Elma is on a three year mission to Mars in the early 1960s, with a cast of characters familiar from the first book.

This was in many ways a better book than the first. The story was more interesting, Elma wasn’t an onlooker in her own life, and the plot was more compact. But Elma was still a bit of a scapegoat to everything that is wrong in her society, which was annoying, and the story’s focus was more on those larger issues than the mission itself. And again, the most interesting story arch was given to Stetson Parker who really grew in this book and turned out to be a great character. He reads like an enemy-turned-love-interest, and he probably would’ve been that if Kowal hadn’t fixed Elma’s marriage with the novella that started the series, where Elma and her husband are old people in Mars. A wasted opportunity there, in my opinion. But despite the flaws, the book stayed with me for a long time, so much so that I had trouble finding anything interesting to read that would match it.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

This was partially remedied by Binti, a novella by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a sci-fi story of an African girl, Binti, who is accepted to a prestigious university on a different planet. She’s the first in her family to leave earth—or her home village even—and she does it in secret, fearing her family’s reaction. On her way there, the ship is attacked by a tentacled alien race and she’s the only survivor, thanks to a device that allows her to understand them. It’s a story of prejudice, hate and acceptance, with a highly imaginative world and an interesting main character. The ending is a bit long, but it brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. I’ll likely read the follow-up stories too.