Friday, March 29, 2024

Guardian: Zhen Hun vol. 2 by Priest: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Guardian vol.2 by priest

Volume 2 of Guardian continues where the previous left off, after the events where Zhao Yunlan has learned the true identity of Shen Wei. It hasn’t lessened his interest in the other man, but Shen Wei keeps his guard up.

It’s the lunar New Year, and the time of year when the ghosts and humans alike have their merits tallied. Guo Changcheng, the intern at the Special Investigations Department, gets another learning experience when the group goes after a resentful spirit. He’s still timid and easily frightened, but we learn that he has abundance of merits, whereas Chu Shuzhi, the zombie investigator at SID doesn’t have enough to end his 300 years of service.

It’s also the time of year to visit the family. Zhao Yunlan brings Shen Wei to meet his parents, shocking them by coming out to them. He doesn’t let their opinions stop him—or Shen Wei’s reluctance either. He’s already bought them a house even, and is contemplating forcefully moving the other man there, only to stop at the last moment after learning the secret about their relationship Shen Wei has kept.

Shen Wei is still searching for the four hallowed artifacts that could release the great seal. This time, the Merit Brush makes an appearance and he and Zhao Yunlan both go after it, though Shen Wei tries to stop the other man. He knows that it will reveal the true identity of Zhao Yunlan to him. It puts a strain between the men, but it also brings their relationship to a turning point.

This wasn’t as action filled as the first volume. There’s only one investigation that is solved fairly easily. The rest is taken up by personal issues of the characters, and Zhao Yunlan investigating his true identity from the Chinese creation mythologies. The volume ends before we learn what he truly thinks of the revelations. The relationship between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei remains rather one-sided, and we don’t learn either, where it stands after their first night together (especially since it’s a bit of a shock to Zhao Yunlan.) I’m eager to find out.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Thousand Autumns vol. 4 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns vol 4 by Meng Xi Shi

The story of Shen Qiao, the good Daoist cultivator, and Yan Wushi, the leader of the demonic cultivating sect, has reached the second to last volume. After the excitement at the end of the last volume, the start of this one is fairly calm. Shen Qiao takes Yuwen Song, the last heir of the previous emperor, to safety with the Bixia Sect. Life for them would be serene even, if Yan Wushi didn’t insist on accompanying them.

Yan Wushi has had a great change of mind—or heart—since the previous book. All of a sudden, Shen Qiao is the most wonderful and perfect person in the world for him, and he’s determined to make the younger man his in a very forceful way. Shen Qiao is equally determined not to believe a word that comes out of Yan Wushi’s mouth, and he most definitely won’t open his heart after the way Yan Wushi broke it earlier by betraying him.

The political turmoil catches with them when they attend the Sword Trial Conference where the rankings of the cultivation world are determined with several battle scenes. An old grandmaster, long believed dead, shows up. And he’s someone even Yan Wushi isn’t willing to face. So he whisks Shen Qiao away, and the pair head to save another contender to the throne. The book ends in the middle of a scene again, before that storyline finds conclusion.

This was the most romance filled book so far, if one can call it such. At least for the first time, it dominated the narrative, and we get Yan Wushi’s point of view of things. But it’s difficult to see how everything could be solved between the men in the last book that’s left, the misunderstandings and mistrust are so strong. But I’m definitely eager to find out.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Cascade Failure by L.M. Sagas

Cascade Failure starts Ambit’s Run sci-fi series. It’s set in a far-future, space-faring galaxy that still has a connection to perfectly liveable Earth. Everything worth anything is owned by Trust, which aims at making profit no matter the human cost. They’re only kept in reign by the Union who protects the labourers. Between them, as a sort of a police and military, is the Guild.

Jal is a deserted Guild ranger. He’s been modified genetically for mining work, and is stronger and faster than others, with eyes that can see in the dark. He’s fleeing from something towards an unknown goal, and for that, he needs a ride. He thinks he’s landed on a ship that has no connection to the Guild, but turns out he’s wrong. And it’s not a coincidence he’s on the ship.

Ambit is a small Guild vessel that takes on riskier jobs at the edges of the galaxy, and looks the part. Her captain is Eoan, a sentient AI with holographic projections and a yearn to learn everything, especially about humans. XO is Saint, a gruff former Earth soldier turned Guild ranger. He’s Jal’s former commanding officer and there’s huge baggage between the men, though their relationship is never made very clear. Then there’s Nash, who is both the mechanic and the doctor and equally good at both. She likes feng shui and crocheting in her spare time.

The crew’s plan to take Jal to be court marshalled takes a turn when they answer a distress call. They find Anke, a chirpy programmer who’s learned of a Trust code that destroys terraformed planets in mere moments. She has a counter code. She just needs to test it. The crew decides to help her. Things don’t go as planned.

This is a very character-driven sci-fi. Each character is given their point of view chapters, and much time is spent in interpersonal relationships. No romances, though there are some hints that could’ve been made stronger and clearer for bigger emotional punches later.

The focus is on Jal and Saint with their past. We learn why Jal deserted, but his life since is sort of glossed over. He emerges as my favourite, though there’s a huge gap in how his chapters present him and how others see him. Anke too, has a clear role. Nash and Eoan didn’t necessarily need their own chapters, they slow things down, but Eoan goes through a transforming event, which was good to see from their point of view.

The plot is fairly straightforward, sort of secondary, and a bit slow, but good. Nothing is black and white, and the bad guys aren’t necessarily bad, or are bad in an understandable way. There are betrayals and sacrifices, and the solutions aren’t easy. The biggest reward for the reader doesn’t come from the plot, but from the characters themselves.

This might have been a four-star book, but it’s so well-written and balanced, especially for a debut, that it gets full five stars. The ending hints at the crew’s next mission. I’m definitely going to read that too.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang

Jumpnauts is set in near future where a war has split the world into two factions. In the middle of this, a signal from space is detected that’s fast-approaching earth. Three young Chinese, two men and a woman, with their own interests in the matter decide to investigate.

I was looking for a modern sci-fi with a fresh take from a new, non-western perspective. This wasn’t that book. The premise is tired and went out of fashion with von Däniken in the 70s. The idea that humanity is too stupid to evolve without outside help would require a truly innovative take to make it work. This wasn’t it. Not even our imagination is our own, and the icons of Chinese culture like the dragon (loong) are just reflections of alien cultures. The book doesnt even ask what made those aliens so much better that they can evolve, but humans cant? Moreover, they havent even evolved beyond wars.

The three main characters, Jiang Liu, Yun Fan and Qi Fei, were really annoying with absolutely nothing to redeem themselves. The reader never gets a proper reading of them. They’re emotionless (like absolutely zero emotional response to anything, be it space, aliens or a scolding mother) and don’t have any inner monologues that would explain their actions and reactions. For the first third, we’re stuck with some sort of triangle drama that doesn’t even exist. Yun Fan said no, and the two men weren’t even truly interested in her. They just needed a reason for constant cockfighting.

The story doesn’t really pick up when the three finally manage to get to space to meet the aliens. The past is rehashed again, and then the story pauses for a philosophising of the garden variety. Everything ends with a kumbaya moment where all the humanitys differences are put aside for a chance for space exploration.

But above all, the book is boring. The narrative has no driving force from the inside. The characters react to outside prompts and are pushed by them through the story. Not once do they rise above themselves or evolve (and no, the mind-reading ability doesn’t count.) In the end, the reader is left empty.

Learning from the author’s bio that she’s a physicist and economist explains a lot about her attitude to humans as an afterthought and passengers in their own story—and why Yun Fan would be such a bad archaeologist. But the author is not much of a physicist either. I’m all for innovative take in science when it comes to fiction; it doesn’t have to be based in real world science. But it has to be consistent within the book. Here, it’s best seen like cultivation magic in Chinese webnovel xianxias. Whatever suits the narrative at any given moment.

The writing is only marginally better than in xianxias too (and Ive given five stars for far messier of those), and the translation by Ken Liu can do only so much with the childish narrative. I’ll stick with xianxias with their jumpy narrative and bad translations. At least there’s emotional reward in those.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Remnants of Filth vol. 3 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Remnants of Filth vol 3 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

Volume 3 of Remnants of Filth offered a heartbreak after a heartbreak. I’ll try to review it without great spoilers, but continue at your own discretion.

The story picks up on the burial mountain where Mo Xi is paying respects to his father. Gu Mang, feeling the need to show Mo Xi that he can become a good person again, sets to ask forgiveness in front of all ten thousand graves on the burial mountain. This even though Mo Xi tells him that no matter how good he becomes, he’ll be executed in the end.

And Mo Xi is right: people aren’t swayed by Gu Mang’s show of humility. Things might have continued like they have so far, with Mo Xi frustrated with Gu Mang, whose memory remains poor, but then Yue Chenqing goes missing. The emperor orders Mo Xi to go rescue him with his Fourth Uncle Murong Chui and half-brother Jiang Yexue, and Gu Mang has to come along too. It’s an uncomfortable journey, as Murong Chui and Jiang Yexue don’t get along at all, and Gu Mang remembers some of the more embarrassing things.

They locate Yue Chenqing to an island of bat demons, but the rescue mission goes sideways. In the heat of the battle, Gu Mang and Mo Xi have a chance to observe the events of the past, namely the moment Gu Mang decides to defect.

It’s a revelation in many ways to Mo Xi. He learns things about Gu Mang he had been too young to understand at the time, and gets some insight into why Gu Mang defected, though he has now more questions than before. And he realises exactly how the emperor sees Gu Mang and what his role in Gu Mang’s defection was. All of it is heartbreaking; more so, because Mo Xi has no way to help Gu Mang or console him.

Mo Xi is greatly shaken by what he learns, but since the battle is on, he has no time to reflect. Gu Mang is changed too. But not back to the man Mo Xi knew before. The final heartbreak comes when Mo Xi finally gathers courage to ask Gu Mang if he ever loved him. The book ends before we get the answer. It’ll be an agony to wait for the next volume.

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Small Gods of Calamity by Sam Kyung Yoo: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Small Gods of Calamity by Ssam Kyung Yoo

Small Gods of Calamity is an urban fantasy/paranormal mystery set in modern Seoul, South Korea. Kim Han-gil is a homicide detective with a special ability to see spirits, both of the living and the dead. His reputation among his colleagues is bad because of it, and his partners never last. The latest has been with him for two weeks and is already showing signs of leaving, when they get a case that appears to be a suicide. Han-gil knows differently.

For years, he’s been hunting an evil spirit that caused his mother’s death. It moves from person to person, causing them to either kill people or themselves. From the police’s point of view, the crimes are separate, and it doesn’t help that other spiritualists can’t see the spirit either, so they’re not willing to help him. Only his adoptive sister, a powerful practitioner, is there for him.

This time, she arranges a partner for him—against his will. Shin Yoonhae, the only person who has survived the spirit. For Han-gil, he is someone to blame for his mother’s death. Yoonhae is a timid person greatly affected by his past and harsh words Han-gil has said to him when they were children. But when a sacrifice is needed, he’s willing to step in.

This was a great story; for a debut, its excellent. It’s not terribly long—I read it in one (looong) evening—and the mystery isn’t very complicated. But the world is interesting—I especially liked how Han-gil detected the spirits of living as sounds and smells—the characters with their complicated backstories are very likeable, and the narrative flows in an easy pace that keeps the reader’s attention. It’s mostly told from Han-gil’s point of view, but Yoonhae gets a few chapters too, broadening the backstory.

For a Korean society, it’s very inclusive, with bi and trans characters, and attention is paid to pronouns in a very natural way. More could’ve been done with Han-gil’s anxiety, but it’s the first book so maybe later. Korean society and culture werent very prominent either, its mostly about forms of address, but the author is American, which probably explains it.

The new partner, and the entire police force, was left out of the story rather easily. With him there, the tension between practitioners and people who know nothing about the spirits could’ve been stronger, but that had already happened in the backstory. But since things with him and Han-gil’s work were left open, it’s maybe something that’ll be explored in subsequent books. This was a good start for a mystery series, and I definitely hope there will be more.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Other World's Books Depend on the Bean Counter Vol. 1 by Yatsuki Wakatsu: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Other World's Books Depend on the Bean Counter by yatsuki Wakatsu

Volume one of the original light novel has finally been translated, a year after the first manga came out. I’ve read the first three volumes of the manga adaptation, and they cover most of the novel, so the story was familiar to me.

Seiichirou Kondou, 29, is an overworked accountant in Japan who on a rare day off comes to the rescue of a school girl who is being sucked into ground by a white light, and he’s sucked in too. They find themselves in an alternate world, where the girl, Yua, has been summoned as a Holy Maiden, whose job it is to save the world from a deadly miasma.

Kondou is a tag-along, who the kingdom feels honour-bound to protect, but nothing more. He could spend his days being idle, but he doesn’t know how, so he asks for a job and is pointed at the royal accounting department. He’s horrified by the lazy work-culture there, and in no time reorganises the whole place. But he doesn’t stop there: he needs to salvage the kingdom’s finances too.

There’s one problem: his body is unable to handle the magic the world is permeated with, and everything from food to air is slowly killing him. In an acute health crisis, he’s rescued by dashing Commander Aresh Indolark, who heals him with magic, which only makes things worse. Out of options, he needs to acclimatise Kondou’s body fast to magic. And that means having sex with him.

Aresh appoints himself as Kondou’s protector, making sure he takes care of his health. And every now and then, a healing is needed, which requires more sex. Their odd relationship is a matter of necessity for Kondou, but for Aresh, it gradually becomes more.

I read the light novel in order to get a deeper view of the story. In places, that happened too, but the manga adaptation is fairly faithful to the story. Kondou seems more driven and single-minded here. There wasn’t much from Aresh’s point of view, but he emerges as a slightly different figure than in the manga in the end. The side characters also have a more meaningful role. The world itself remains a bit vague, so the manga does a better job depicting that.

This was originally a serialised web novel, so every chapter repeats much of what has been told many times already. Apart from that, it’s well-written and easy to read. Translation works too. The story ends without a cliffhanger, but in such a point in the men’s lives that I absolutely have to read more.