Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Second Change Angel by Griffin Barber and Kacey Ezell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Second Chance Angel by Griffin Barber and Kacey Ezell
Second Change Angel is a sci-fi mystery set in somewhere in space, somewhen in the future. Full disclosure: one, I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, and two, I stopped reading around the 70% mark and didn’t finish it.

Second Change Angel is one of those unfortunate books that don’t give the reader any roadmap to work on when it comes to characters, time and spaceand space. I put the latter in twice, because apparently it takes place in a space station, though we only get a confirmation of that when the main character leaves the place. Until then, we could’ve been on a random planet or a moon just as well.

Time is somewhere in the future after a devastating war with an alien race that has blown up the earth. The war was apparently long, but the earth has been gone for only seven years. Does this upset the remaining humans? No, it doesn’t. Maybe they’re too far removed from the home planet already. Maybe the human race has spread so far that the loss of the planet doesn’t matter. I don’t know, because I don’t know where we are in relation to the earth and how long ago humans have left it. Space travel is sort of fast, and although it depends on tricks like slingshots around a sun and using a planet’s gravitational force for deceleration, I got the notion that we’re far, far from our solar system.

Place is a space station that seems to be built to accommodate humans, though not by humans, if I got that right. The place is so poorly described that all I have are weird, confusing and frustrating impressions that don’t really make any sense when put together. The place is apparently huge, because people travel by vehicles. It’s built on one level, with very tall houses rising from it, so that the ceiling has to be high, but it’s also curving. The ceiling is apparently non-transparent, because the place is artificially lit. But despite all this, there is only one level below ground? How does that even work?

Characters are the greatest weakness. There are four point of view characters, three of which are AIs. That was why I initially chose the book, having read and loved books like Murderbot Diaries where the AI tries to cope among humanity, but remains essential alien to it. Unfortunately that wasn’t what I got.

The AIs are very human-like with emotions and petty grievances, and inability to concentrate on more than one task at the time. They are gendered and very stereotypically at that. LEO, a male, is a law enforcement AI and SARA, a female, a station administrative AI. Both behave according to their assumed gender as well. The station AIs have their own mystery plot unfolding concerning a virus or some such that cause their emotions and prevent them from correcting the malfunction. They also provide a bird’s eye view on some characters, so that we learn more than just the main character’s point of view.

The main AI character is a personal AI called Angel. Developed for soldiers, personal AIs are mainly supposed to enhance their users’ physical and mental abilities during the battle, but the war is over and the AIs remain. Angel belongs to a former special ops soldier Siren who works as a lounge singer in a seedy bar. She goes missing and somehow Angel ends up in the body of another former soldier who has had his AI removed as a disciplinary measure.

Angel is a female and behaves like one to get her way with her new host, like making him feel like he’s being caressed by her. She’s manipulative and doesn’t hesitate to take over the host’s body when she feels like it with no regard to his right to govern his bodynor is that philosophical question brought up in the narrative. She sulks and is in general a great nuisance and a very annoying character. As an AI, she’s a failure. As a narrator, she’s really difficult to follow, because she wavers between I, we, and he when she describes the actions of the body she inhabits.

The only human character is Muck, the former soldier whose body Angel invadesuninvited, I might add. We don’t learn anything about him initially, and titbits about his past spring up only when the plot so requires. For example, he needs a rescue on a desert and it so happens that the religious order that saves him is the one he grew up in. Wouldn’t that have made a great starting point for building his character? How does a man who grows up with an order who shuns AI technology end up becoming an AI enhanced soldier? Maybe the answer is given at the end of the book, but I didn’t get that far. At some point Angel also informs him that the memory he has of the events that led to his disgrace are altered. It’s a meaningless titbit at that particular point, but maybe all is revealed in the endand hopefully it links with the overall plot somehow too. I don’t know. What I know is that it would’ve been more meaningful if Muck had even remotely suspected it earlier.

All in all, Muck is a spineless character in a thug’s body who is pushed this way and that by Angel. He’s seemingly in lead of the investigation that Angel forces him to do, but that’s about the only thing that distinguishes him in any way.

What about the plot then? Siren goes missing without the knowledge of her AI who somehow gets booted off her body and ends up in Muck’s, so she forces him to investigate the disappearance. Do they start by investigating who might have the technological skills to remove an AI? No, they go after the biggest drug baron. Do they search the most obvious places for her, like the station itself? No, they head off the station to a planet the drug baron directs them to. Do they find her there? No.

This is where I stopped reading, by the way. The events so far had been so illogical and stupid and filled with out of the blue attacks and pointless detours, like getting weapons from an arms dealer Muck then never even uses before they get blown up. The secondary plot with the station AIs about the virus infecting them might have been more interesting, but they were so annoying characters that I couldn’t really care.

The task of making sense of the plot wasn’t made any easier by the narrative that was mostly dialogue between talking heads. Most of the time there was no indication about who was talkingnot a single ‘he said, she said’, or even the occasional action beat of ‘she smiled’, ‘he nodded’so that I had to actually count the exchanges to figure out who was saying what. This was made infinitely more difficult by the file I received from NetGalley that was dismally formatted, with paragraphs that either had no indents or had indents in the middle of the sentence, and dialogues that bled together in endless rows.

So, all in all, a disappointing experience. Why, then, did I give it three stars? I don’t know. It had some draw that kept me reading despite the difficulties, like the struggle with PTSD Muck and Siren originally dealt withthough that was soon forgottenand really imaginative alienswho were all criminals, by the way. And who knows, maybe it redeems itself in the end. I couldn’t make myself finish the book, but I don’t want to rob others the chance to find out by giving the book only two stars. If it improves, let me know.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison
Sarah Monette is a fantasy author who blew my mind with Mélusine and the Doctrine of Labyrinths series that followed fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve kept expecting new books from her, but it was years later until she returned to my radar, now writing as Katherine Addison. The Goblin Emperor is waiting on my to-be-read pile, but the sample chapters were truly interesting. When I noticed The Angel of Crows on NetGalley, I instantly made a request for it, and to my absolute delight, I was given an early copy.

The book description promised an alternate Victorian London where angels rule and everyone lives in a constant fear of one of them falling, which would be like “a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds”. Seldom has a book description been so off. What I got was a Sherlock Holmes retelling. I don’t like retellings and Sherlock Holmes retellings are the most tired of them all. If I’d known it was one, I probably would’ve skipped this, no matter how much I like the author.

This is basically a collection of Holmes’ most famous cases bound together with a superficial plot about Jack the Rippera case Holmes famously never tackled. There were some minor changes, but none of them made the stories truly fresh. The newness, therefore, rests solely on the world-building.

It’s an alternate Victorian London with everything. There are both steampunk elements, like airships and automatons, and all manner of supernatural creatures from vampires and werewolves to ghosts and hellhounds. And angels. There are three kinds of angels: those bound to a building and thus worthy of a name, the Nameless who wander about without a mind and purpose of their own, and the Fallen who are vicious creatures who kill and inflict supernatural diseases. We actually never meet the latter.

Holmes is an angel called Crow. He is different from other angels because he is not bound to a building, but isn’t a Nameless or a Fallen eithera fact that the author didn’t fully explain until about midway to the book, which left me constantly baffled with people’s reactions to him. He likes to solve crimes, and he is very good at deductive reasoning. Unlike Holmes, he doesn’t have any viceshe doesn’t even eator irritating habits, and he is actually very endearing in his constant awe of humanity.

Dr Watson is Dr Doyle who has survived an attack by a Fallen in Afghanistan and is suffering from the consequences, which will lead to a metamorphosis. Since the actual flavour of the change is kept as a secret for a while, I’ll discuss it in the spoiler section at the end of the post. It plays some role in solving the cases; perhaps the only worthwhile alteration the author has made to the stories. The good doctor has another secret too, even more tightly guarded. Considering the importance given to it, I would’ve wished it actually had some sort of impactit definitely would’ve opened the story to a whole new levelbut it was glossed over and life went on like it didn’t even exist. More about that in the spoiler section.

Considering the interesting world the author has created, it seems criminal that she’s wasted it on Sherlock Holmes. The angels had a fascinating society that could’ve formed a basis to a completely unique plot, and Crow had such an interesting backstory that he could’ve carried a book on that alone. The alterations don’t even really influence the original stories. It wasn’t until midway to the book that they started to have any effect on the cases, and the suspects remained ordinary humans in pretty much all of them.

This being said, I found the book interesting enough to keep reading. I even gave it four stars. The author has recreated the atmosphere of Conan-Doyle’s originals well, the narrative style works and never wavers, and I liked both Crow and Dr Doyle. If there’s ever a follow-up, I hope the author goes to town with the world and gives the two a proper plot and a unique story.

And now to the spoilers.


You have been warned.

The first spoiler concerns what Dr Doyle is changing into. A hellhound. It’s a somewhat helpful change, as it gives Doyle an ability to smell both natural and supernatural traces. It also allows the author to play with the story of the Hound of Baskerville and add fresh scenes about them trying to find a cure for it with Crow. In the end, it allows the doctor to find Jack the Ripper too. However, it reveals the secret to the police who rush in to arrest Doyle, as unregistered creatures are illegalthough the author fails to explain why this is.

Being a hellhound is surprisingly easy for Doyle. There’s some pain and some shame, but at no point in the narrative does the doctor mourn or berate the change. The author is too tied with the original Holmes stories to give room to such ruminations. And just when the story got interesting, a deus ex machina allows the doctor to remain free.

The other secret is bigger and an even greater wasted opportunity for the author. At the mid-point of the book, out of the bluethere are literally no hints whatsoeverit turns out, that Dr Doyle is in fact a woman. I’d say my mind was blown, and it kind of was, but it would’ve made a greater impact if it had been at least hinted at.

And it would’ve mattered more, if this new reality had been incorporated into the story somehow. But life goes on like before. We don’t learn why Dr Doyle pretends to be a man. Is it for purely practical reasons, as it’s the only way she can practice medicine? Or does she in fact identify as a man? She seems to be attracted to women, but then nothing comes of that. And how does it work? She’s spent decades as a military doctor on campaigns and no one even guessed until she ended up in hospital after being attacked by the Fallen angel. Does she have a naturally manly body? A low voice? And what about the periods? How does she deal with them? So many questions and not a single answer given. So I don’t understand why the author felt necessary to make such a change. Being a hellhound was bad enough for the poor doctor. Why did he need to be inflicted with being a woman too?

Saturday, May 09, 2020

This Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight

I picked This Eternity of Masks and Shadows from NetGalley based on the description that promised an urban fantasy mystery with gods. In a way, that’s what I got. In other ways, it was nothing like that.

The book is set in an alternate world where all the gods of all the mythologies in the world live as humans among the general population, with some supernatural abilities based on their mythology, but with a limited lifespan. Once they die, they reincarnate with no memory of their past lives and sometimes with no idea they are gods. A group of gods living around Boston start dying, presumably by their own hand. One of them is an Inuit goddess of sea. Her daughter, Cairn, believes her mother was murdered and wants to find out the truth.

Even though the setting is basic UFsupernatural elements in modern world and a mystery that is solved by an outsider investigatorthe execution is nothing like your typical urban fantasy. For one, it lacked the energy and immediacy of urban fantasy. Instead, the narrative is lingering and dreamlike with not much world building, the point of view is very distant third person that offer only a superficial insight into the characters’ minds, and it relies heavily on telling, not showing. And worst of all, it has no humour whatsoever. In the afterword, the author mentions superheroes as one of the inspirations. Going with that notion, this book is the dark, no-laughs, no self-irony DC world of superheroes, not the more upbeat Marvel with humour and the ability to laugh at themselves.

It’s not a bad book though. The mystery is interesting and told in two timelines, the present and twenty years earlier. There are enough surprises that the main baddie isn’t obvious until the great revelation. The pacing is slightly off however; there are two climatic scenes at sixty and eighty percent mark that both could’ve led to the end, but the book continues on to the final showdown. And then it goes on some more. At the eighty percent mark I wasn’t invested in the outcome anymore, mostly because of the distancing narrative that failed to make me care about the characters and their fate, but I read on.

The main weakness of the book was its characters. I didn’t care for any of them. Cairn as a grieving daughter was initially interesting, but the reader learns nothing about her during the story. She is a person who has been formed by events before the book starts, and that’s all the reader gets. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change and she doesn’t get any sort of catharsis from avenging her mother. The supporting cast was a collection of cardboard cut-outs. I had great hopes for Nook, a grumpy polar bear detective. For the first third of the book when he and Cairn investigated together, there was some proper interaction between them, but then they were separated for most of the book. Yet at the end the reader was supposed to believe they had grown fond of each other. Then there were the victims. I didn’t care for any of them. Just because they met gruesome deaths wasn’t enough to feel for them, when I hadn’t learned anything about them that would’ve make me sympathise with them. For most part, they were very unlikeable characters.

The most annoying, perhaps, was Cairn’s relationship with Delphine. Urban fantasy often has some sort of romantic element in the background that doesn’t dominate solving the main mystery, but which adds spice to interactions between characters. Not so here. The book starts with their romance, but it had already had its great formative moments before the book begins. Then it’s just a series of on-again off-again events that doesn’t make the reader believe that either of them cares for the other, let alone loves. One of the climaxes depends on the reader caring for their relationship, but it was just the same for me what would happen. Basically, I began to root for both of them to die.

All in all, this was a mixed read for me. The mystery was satisfying, the rest of it not so much. There was some setting-up for a series at the end, but I doubt I’d read more of this.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

My second NetGalley pick is The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell, the first book in The Legacy of Mercenary King series. It’s high fantasy with magic and warring kingdoms, and it had great potential. Unfortunately that didn’t manifest.

The book starts with the main character being sentenced to death for treason and then recounts the events that led to that point. Michael Kingman is a son of a man convicted for killing a prince and his life leads him to be convicted for killing the king. Michael is the hero of the book, so the reader can’t help hoping that the events that seem inevitably to lead him to his doom might be something else after all. With ‘kingdom of liars’ in the title, I presumed an unreliable narrator and a slow unravelling of the truth. That wasn’t what I got.

This was a good book, but also an odd one with something constantly slightly off. Even though the frame of the story, Michael’s quest to prove his father’s innocence and inevitable doom, was given at the beginning, that’s not the sole direction the book took. For the first half there was another story happening too, a rebellion against the king, which competed for attention with the main story, with not enough room given to either story-line. The latter mainly consisted of events that distracted Michael from his quest and added nothing to the main story or had an impact on it. On the latter half of the book that story-line was discarded after an annoying cop-out, which improved the plot considerably.

In addition to two plots, there were two sets of secondary characters that were identical to one another. There were two poor, mistreated boys with little brothers that Michael felt responsible for, but who didn’t seem to be friends with one another, as if Michael led two separate lives. Their actions had no impact on the plot, but they served to distract Michael, i.e. added to the word count. Then there were two women who knew Michael of old, but of whom he had no recollection. Their identities were withheld to the last moment, giving the reader a notion that they would be important for Michael’s life and the main plot, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. And then there were two women from law enforcement/military who were interchangeable too and had no meaningful impact on the plot.

I don’t know why the editor of the book allowed two parallel plots with two sets of characters to happen. Even if the rebel plot were a setting for the next book, it could’ve been handled as background noise with the focus more sharply on the main plot. There was enough going on with that one to fill a book.

Michael wasn’t a likeable character. He was selfish and childish, and he didn’t much care who he hurt with his quest for truthuntil after the fact. Then he rushed in to make things better, putting the main plot on hold and/or in jeopardy. His memory was faulty due to magic, but when he did regain his memories, they didn’t offer any sort of revelation that their absence had hinted at. He wasn’t the agent of his story. He was pushed around by events outside his control; he spends the entire book trying to gain access to the king, only to be denied his goal; required a deus ex machina salvation, and didn’t manage to achieve what he set out to do in the beginning, thus robbing the book of a proper conclusion. It was left for the next book, but with the rebellion and the sudden turn in his life orchestrated outside the plot, there would’ve been enough material even without postponing it too.

There’s a lot happening to the secondary characters behind the scenes that mainly come off as ‘what the hell’. Trey, a poor slum dweller, is auctioning himself off to become a soldier at one point and the next he is in the inner circle of the prince, only to become a rebel. How did that happen? No one even questions it. The mercenary Dark has an issue with his father, but when they finally face, they don’t even recognise one another. Was it all in Michael’s head? Michael’s older brother is being allowed to marry into the most important family in the country and no one bats an eye, even though Michael has to support himself as a thief and is constantly being harassed for his past. The princess is missing and then she’s not, but isn’t anyone important for the plot despite all the build-up, and then she’s absent again. A lot more thought should’ve gone into all these characters. Now they seem like spur-of-the-moment inventions.

The world is fairly interesting, but its special features are mainly props. The use of magic causes memory loss that accumulates, but none of the main characters suffer from it. It’s used as a plot device, as Michael sets out to find the king’s memories, i.e. his journal that might tell the truth about his father, but in the end that doesn’t happen. Every magic wielder remembers Michael even if he doesn’t remember them. And then there’s the broken moon that has pieces falling from it, but that doesn’t drive the plot either, so I wasn’t entirely sure what its point was, other than distraction.

This was a good book, but not a great one. The author clearly didn’t know what kind of book he was writing until at the end. With a sharper focus it would’ve been a much better book and a more enjoyable read. I hope the next one will fix that.