Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review - Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze


Short review: T'Challa struggles to retain his position of authority in Wakanda as the Shaman Tetu and his mind-controlling witch ally foment discord among the populace. Even some of the dora milaje turn against the Black Panther.

Haiku
Great robbers punish
What about the robber who
Broke into my house?

Full review: Sometimes an author tries to do something truly ambitious. Sometimes their efforts pay off, and the resulting work is a brilliant and masterful piece. Sometimes they aren't able to realize their ambition and the result is vaguely disappointing, but one can appreciate the intentions behind the piece. In Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts a story that is clearly quite ambitious in scope, and while it doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, the end result is an examination of power, responsibility, authority, and self-determination that is at turns fascinating, tantalizing, and intensely frustrating.

The character Black Panther was created in the 1960s, and although his powers have fluctuated somewhat over the years, his backstory, and the political apparatus that goes with it has remained mostly constant. Black Panther is the title given to the chief of the Panther Tribe in the isolated and secretive African nation of Wakanda, who also happens to be that nations' hereditary ruler and protector. The current Black Panther is T'Challa, who arose to the position after his father T'Chaka was killed by Ulysses Klaw, prompting T'Challa to undergo the trials and training needed in a quest for revenge. Wakanda itself is wealthy due to a deposit of the valuable metal vibranium, and T'Challa has used this wealth to transform the nation into a high-tech powerhouse. Much of this background more or less draws upon the traditional popular conception of Africa - a society run by tribes and chiefs, exotic and mysterious, with the "twist" being that the nation boasts advanced technology that would put many "civilized" nations to shame.

This vision of Africa was never truly accurate, and as time has passed has become increasingly anachronistic in even the small details that were close to reality. Many African nations are poor, but like any nation, prosperity is not evenly distributed and most boast large cities, with some rivaling the large metropolises of the northern hemisphere. They have universities, research labs, and all of the other elements of modern society, which makes Wakanda much less of an outlier in this regard than it might have been thought of when it was first conceived. More notably, the notion that a nation could be ruled by a hereditary monarch (albeit an ostensibly benevolent one) seems increasingly out of step with the African experience when more and more nations of the continent have shed rule by dictators and strongmen in favor of more representative governments. The Africa of Black Panther's creation was built on a collection of stereotypes and myths, and now, even those stereotypes and myths are becoming more than a bit worn at the edges.

This background is necessary to understand what it appears that Coates is attempting to do with A Nation Under Our Feet which amounts to nothing short of calling into question the very heroic nature of the Black Panther. In the opening pages of the book, T'Challa is attacked by angry workers at the nation's vibranium mine and forced to defend himself - but this scene of the super-powered protector of the nation turning against his own people does not play well with the public, causing further resentment within the populace. The strict application of Wakandan law turns Ayo and Akena, a pair of the dora milaje, against T'Challa's regime. They take their advanced weaponry with them and carve out a mini-state of their own within the borders of Wakanda. On another front, the Shaman Tetu aided by an enchantress who can shape other's minds and possibly supported (or merely manipulated) by the Nigandans has formed an army to fight against T'Challa. Against these foes, T'Challa and his stepmother Ramonda struggle to hold their nation together, and preserve the traditional society of which they are part. Unfortunately, it seems that almost every decision they make is the wrong one. It is Ramonda's inflexibility that leads to Ayo and Aneka's revolt. It is T'Challa's attempts to protect his people that serve to drive them away from him, illustrated in one of the pivotal scenes in the book when he takes on a band of Tetu's rebels near the Nigandan border. After he has defeated them, he turns to the women and children promising the men will be brought to justice and that their king will provide for them. One woman gathers her children, gestures around her and says simply "These men were providing for us".

But for all that, this volume is severely flawed. First, there are really too many moving parts for its length, as Coates tries to cram in a lot more wrinkles into the story than it can comfortably hold. There are three main factions, each with their own storyline; four if you count the Nigandans as their own faction; five if you count the philosopher Changamire as one as well. In addition, there is a side diversion in which the comatose Shuri ventures into the realm of memory. The result is a disjointed, often confusing narrative in which none of the actors are ever fully developed, and there isn't really much to do but watch as Coates moves them about like wooden chess pieces. The story seems like it has tremendous potential in its conception, but that the potential simply isn't realized in the execution. The character of Changamire exemplifies this to a certain extent: He is a dissident who advocates for a more representative version of government, comparing the rulers of the country to a "big thief" who serves to stop the "little thieves", asking how the weak should marshal justice against the powerful. But this is never really followed-up upon, and in fact, none of the factions vying for power give any reason for choosing their side in the struggle more compelling than "I'll be a better strongman than my rivals". If T'Challa is just a ruling strongman who is only differentiated from his political rivals by the fact that he is "legitimate" and they are not, is he truly heroic, or even good?

The book is simply crammed full of so much intrigue and activity that there isn't really room to explore the notions that it seems Coates really wants to get at - specifically the anachronistic nature of having a hereditary king rule over a modern nation. Even the unrest among the populace seems forced - the unnamed with that Tetu has enlisted to his side is credited with fomenting discord among the Wakandan people, using her mystical powers to cause them to rise up against T'Challa. The reader is left wondering if the discord is because the Wakandans are actually dissatisfied, or just because super-villain magic made them so, and as a result, the book loses a lot of the power it could have had. If there was not a super-villain using mind-magic to foment discord, would the populace of Wakanda be satisfied with being ruled by a hereditary king, or do they have legitimate political grievances that T'Challa should address? Given that this is a super-hero story, one does have to make some concessions to the genre, and a witch who can manipulate minds is perfectly in keeping with that, but in this case this element detracts from the story. On the flip side, the actual super-heroic elements are pretty sparse in this volume - T'Challa has a few scenes in which he tangles with some soldiers, and Ayo and Akena apparently take on and defeat the gorilla warrior Mandla, but their fight takes place almost entirely off-stage. The end result is a story that skimps on the philosophy and character development on the one hand, and gives a short shrift to the super-heroic punching on the other, yielding a whole that is disappointing on all fronts.

The volume also includes a reprint of the original Fantastic Four story in which the character of T'Challa was first introduced. In the story, T'Challa entices the quartet with the gift of an advanced aircraft, which they immediately hop into for a joyride. This turns out to be a trap, as the vehicle jets them to Wakanda where the Black Panther has decided to take them all on, defeating the foursome one after the other. A not-unpredictable twist turns the tables and the Fantastic Four rally, use a little teamwork, and get the upper hand before T'Challa reveals his true identity and offers to explain himself, at which point the story ends. Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, the story is bold, bright, glorious, and incredibly goofy in the way that only comics from the 1960s really can be. There isn't anything deep and meaningful in it beyond "teamwork is good" and "don't overlook ordinary people", but it is a quick and fun little romp.

In the end, A Nation Under Our Feet just misses the mark. That's not really as big a criticism as one might think, as it aimed quite high, and when it comes down to it, I'd usually rather see a work aim high and miss than a work opt for a more comfortable story and hit the mark. The problem with this volume is that there is simply too much story to fit inside the amount of space that Coates had to work with. The end result is a story that just doesn't have enough time to develop the characters, the politics, or the plot that the book relies upon, and the very tropes of the super-hero genre get in the way of the story at times. The resulting product is an effort that is noble in intent, and generally pretty good, but just doesn't quite live up to the promise it held.

2017 Hugo Finalists

Ta-Nehisi Coates     Brian Stelfreeze     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 29, 2017

Musical Monday - Section 60 by Kansas


Section 60 is the part of Arlington National Cemetery where fallen service members from the Afghan and Iraq conflicts are buried. That we should honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect the nation is something that should never be in question. The real question one must ask on a day like this is whether the nation they sacrificed for is worthy of their actions.

What should we aspire to? I always think back to a quote from John Adams, writing to Abigail Adams about what he hoped for their children:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry, Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
Notice what the end goal was: To allow his grandchildren to pursue the arts. Not commerce or the pursuit of money, but rather those things that would endure. What we remember of a culture is their art, their literature, their creations. Adams aspired to have his descendants engage in that endeavor. In a way, all Americans are descended from Adams and the rest of the framers. The aspirations they had for their progeny are the aspirations they had for the nation. And Adams and his contemporaries did put this into action, first by creating a government that they believed would lead to such activities, but also by funding public works of art and architecture to enoble the civic life of the nation and set and example for others to follow.

But what about the intervening years. Surely the aspirations of the United States have changed since then. After all, in the 1920s Calvin Coolidge stated that "the chief business of the American people is business". Except that wasn't his entire quote. Coolidge went on to say:
[T]he accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence, but we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.
Coolidge knew, as so many now appear not to, that the mere pursuit of profit should not be the end goal of the life of an American. He knew that for life to have meaning, one must aspire to something greater than just amassing a vast fortune. A vast fortune must be put to some good use, as men like Andrew Carnegie did, who used his fortune to endow libraries and universities. Or as James Smithson did when he left his wealth to be used to create the public museums of the Smithsonian Institution. I'm not saying that we should wait until those who are well-off donate their money to the arts, but I am saying that the notion that it is a patriotic end in itself to be a successful businessman who does nothing but become wealthy is a relatively new one, which would not be recognized by those who founded this nation or those who nurtured and cared for it for most of its life.

Previous Musical Monday: Avengers Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Wonder Woman Main Theme

Kansas     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Book Blogger Hop May 26th - June 1st: 18 U.S.C. § 205 Seems Like It Might Be Real Important in U.S. Politics Soon


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What is the most fun part/aspect of being a book blogger?

My first impulse was to say "the reading", because if you don't love reading, you just aren't going to be a successful book blogger. But the problem with that answer is that while reading is necessary to being a book blogger, it is quite possible to enjoy reading without being a book blogger at all. WHile reading is necessary for being a book blogger, it isn't sufficient.

So I'm going to say that the most fun part of being a book blogger is the writing. I know, this sounds odd, because the writing is pretty much the most difficult part of the process. Reading is easy - you just sit and take in everything that the author has put on the page. Writing, on the other hand, is hard. You have to translate your thoughts from the disorganized morass of your mind into a coherent form that others can derive value from.

Breaking down a piece of media, whether it is a book, or a movie, or a television series, is something that I do, and have always done as far back as I can remember. I can't read a book without doing this. I find that taking a story apart and examining the parts that it is made of serves to enhance my enjoyment of it. The only problem is that this is entirely different from the way the redhead interacts with artistic works - so much so that it tends to detract from her enjoyment of it. As a result, she usually doesn't want me to talk to her about how I experience these things. Instead, I write them down and post them on this blog. For me, the process of writing about a work helps me to understand it, and as a result, it is the best and most enjoyable part of book blogging.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: "206 Bones" Is a Novel by Kathy Reichs

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review - The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta


Short review: The Vision builds an android family and sets up house in the suburb of Arlington, Virginia. This is about as creepy and goes about as badly as one might it expect it to.

Haiku
A nice family
Android parents and children
And it all goes wrong

Full review: Imagine that an android who doesn't really understand humanity decided to build himself an android family, infuse them with the personalities of a collection of dead people, and then went to live in the suburbs as a way to try to figure out how to truly be human. This might seem to be creepy at first glance, and The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man will do little to disabuse one of that notion. Set in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., this first installment in a new story featuring long-time Avenger the Vision is a story about alienation, xenophobia, betrayal, deception, and the consequences flowing from that toxic mix. It is also a story about love, loyalty, and curiosity, and how those can go horribly awry and make a bad situation that much worse. It is, in short, a tragedy, in the most classic sense of the word.

The book opens with the Visions moving into a typical single family home on a typical suburban street with sidewalks, manicured lawns, and neighbors who stop by to greet newcomers with a plate of cookies. The Visions themselves are a picture-perfect android family headed up by Vision himself plus the three loved ones he constructed with his own hands: His wife Virginia, his son Vin, and his daughter Viv. But even at this early state, when everything is supposed to be as normal and ordinary as can be, the scenario presents nagging and unsettling questions. If Vision constructed all three of the members of his "family", aren't all three his "children"? Or are none of them his "children"? In an off-hand remark, Vision explains that Vin and Viv are twins, but what exactly does it mean for a pair of android children to be twins? Even at their most domestic and unthreatening, the Visions are deeply disturbing.

It does not take long for the oddness of the Vision family to become even more apparent. When they are with outsiders, such as George and Nora, the couple who open the book with a "welcome to the neighborhood" visit, the family seems almost normal, although they are noticeably socially awkward. Once their visitors have left, the Visions shift to a conversation that is far more in keeping with what one would expect from a collection of inhuman androids working with highly logical minds devoids of much in the way of actual human experience and emotional understanding. Through these interactions it becomes clear that Vision has something of an ulterior motive for constructing and maintaining his family - he wishes to understand what it means to be human. He wishes to understand humanity, and in effect become human in the way he thinks and thus avoid the tyranny that results from purely logical thinking.

After a few pages of the Visions being a neighborhood curiosity, with the children showing off their powers for their peers and their neighbors taking snapshots of the androids in their midst, disaster strikes, and this reveals the true danger that "becoming human" poses for Vision, and the rest of the book lays out the path that, once the Visions are upon it, seems like it will inevitably lead to disaster. The catalyzing event is an attack upon Vision's family by the Grim Reaper, who is enraged by the fact that the Vision used the personalities of the Grim Reaper's family to construct his own. In a sequence of almost shocking brutality, he severely injures Viv, nearly cutting her in half and wrecking the family home before Virginia acts to defend her children and kills the assailant with a baking pan. The viciousness of this sequence is all the more horrific due to the placid and tranquil events that had gone before. But as terrible as the attack is, the decision that makes everything go wrong is almost trivial: Virginia and Vin cover up the Grim Reaper's death by lying to Vision and burying the body in the back yard.

From this point, relatively early in the book, the idyllic life that Vision had put together for his family starts to pull apart at the seams, and Vision is left trying to protect those that he loves. The only trouble is, trying to protect those he loves is a recipe for disaster. Vin gets in trouble in school, and Vision essentially pulls rank on the High School Principal to protect the boy, asserting that as he has saved the Earth thirty-seven times, he can make the decision as to how his son will be punished. And at the time, Vision's position seems eminently reasonable, but when he later resorts to the same logic when Virginia's poor judgment leads to an even larger problem, it becomes apparent that events are spinning out of control. What makes this story even more horrific is that every step down the path Vision takes logically follows from the the previous one, and every step that Vision takes also seems to be entirely the wrong decision. This is, to be blunt, an illustration of how logic can go awry when the decisions are left to someone who wants to be human, but doesn't actually understand what it is to be human.

Much of the terrible truth revealed in this story is contained in a single scene, relatively early in the book when Vision awakens in the middle of the night to see what seems to be a small glitch in Virginia that causes her eyes to open and shut even though she is "sleeping". Twice he repeats a haunting line: "This is my wife. I love her. I must love her". It is in that "must" that the flaw from which all of the misguided decisions flow is found. Vision understands what someone who loves someone does, but he doesn't understand what love actually is, because if he did, he'd know there is no situation in which one can will themselves into loving someone. There is no "must" when it comes to being in love. Later in the book this sort of problem is formalized by the narrator, the witch Agatha Harkness, who reveals the limitations of machine thinking with a simple comparison, and also reveals the limitation in the entire Vision family that seems destined to turn the hero into one of the greatest threats the world could face.

What makes Little Worse Than a Man such a compelling book is that everything that takes place seems almost inevitable, and at times, entirely normal. There is no moment where someone makes a decision that seems irrational, and in the early going, all of the choices made seem to be even reasonably morally well grounded. But every reasonable decision that turns out to be the right one comes back later to be the foundation of a reasonable decision that is entirely the wrong one. This progression is at the heart of the brilliance of this book, showing how, step by step, a heroic figure can go tragically wrong. King has taken the strengths of the Vision character, and then deftly used them to set up his downfall. The true essence of tragedy is for a character to reason his way to making all of the right decisions until their way of thinking leads them to a position where they go through the same process in the wrong situation and make the wrong decision. Vision is a character almost uniquely suited to feature in such a tale as his thinking is based on patterns and algorithms, making him ripe for a fall, and, just as critically, powerful enough that his fall is bound to be a cataclysmic event for all those around him.

Little Worse Than a Man is, in the end, the first act of a horror story. From the creepy off-kilter nature of the opening pages through the rising dread of the core to the chilling and terrifying note at the end, this volume contains a work of suspense and tragedy. To be perfectly honest, this story is not what I expected when I sat down to read a graphic story about Vision and his robot family living in the suburbs of the nation's capitol, but it now seems like the only story that could come out of such a scenario. Only the best storytellers can give you something that you didn't expect and yet at the same time feels ineluctably correct, and in this volume King and Walta have done exactly that.

2017 Hugo Finalists

Tom King     Gabriel Hernandez Walta     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde


Short review: The Jeweled Kingdom is betrayed and Sima and Lin must salvage what they can from the shards.

Haiku
Kingdom of jewels
Betrayed by lapidary
Only shards remain

Full review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a story about transitions - about that space when one story is ending, and new stories are just about to begin. It is also a story about duty, loyalty, and sacrifice, and how sometimes those aren't enough to save the day. Taking place at the death of one kingdom and the genesis of a new order, the story occupies that netherworld that is often lost to history, a fact that is highlighted by the framing device used to tell it. Despite this tale's short length, Wilde manages to convey a complex fantasy world with an unusual and deadly system of magic and a social order that has arisen to deal with it while also infusing the characters with a weight and presence that one usually only finds in longer works.

The story of The Jewel and Her Lapidary is told in two modes, and alternates between them. The conventional aspect of the story is a straightforward fantasy that starts in the immediate aftermath of an act of betrayal that resulted in the murder of pretty much every member of the Jewel Court save for the Lapidary Lin and her Jewel, the Princess Sima. The architect of this treason is Lin's own father, formerly the Lapidary Aba who was bound to the King of the Jewel Court and who had embarked upon a plan born of insanity to overthrow the extant order and allow the armies of the neighboring Western Mountains under their warlord Remir to invade, apparently intending to offer his daughter and the princess as bargaining chips to gain something. The key here is that the plan is in fact born of insanity, and that insanity is part and parcel of the fantastical element that underpins the entire story - the existence of people called "Lapidaries" who can hear and use the powers of magical gemstones. The trouble is, the gems have a will of their own, and that will is apparently often inimical to humanity and drives these Jewels mad. The Lapidaries are bound to the service of people called Jewels, constrained by various oaths to prevent the gems from dominating their minds. Some gems are more powerful and sought after such as the Star Cabochon, while others are less impressive. Although not explicitly stated, the story implies that the more powerful a gem is, the more dangerous it is to the user.

This portion of the story is told by rotating between the viewpoints of Lin and Sima, focusing on one and then the other as they struggle to salvage at least something out of the shards of their shattered kingdom. For her part Lin must face the fact that it was her father who forsook his oaths and betrayed their kingdom, and the fact that she has to break her own oaths of duty in order to fulfill her promise of service to Sima. On her side of the ledger, Sima is faced with the task of navigating an impossible situation to save her people as best she can even though she was intentionally never prepared for politics. There is an almost claustrophobic element to this portion of the story, as most of it takes place within the confines of the Jeweled Palace, and the freedom of movement, and consequently freedom of action, that both Lin and Sima have gets progressively more constrained as the story goes on. As I said at the outset, this is a story about one story ending, and Lin and Sima must face this reality as it crashes into them as all of their options are closed off one by one, leaving them with no good choices, and only one that can even be described as not so bad. Wilde manages this story expertly, giving a sense of desperation and mounting terror and then offering just the smallest glimmer of hope underneath.

The other mode by which this story is told is a travelogue, written some undefined (but apparently quite lengthy) time after the events of the more conventionally told portion. In these sections, the reader is given tips on traveling to the Jeweled Valley, now a tourist destination with picturesque scenery, lovely walking trails, notable sites of interest, and quaint local crafts. These little saccharine snippets of guidebook information are set against the gritty and brutal reality of the other sections, and while they get something akin to the broad strokes of the history correct, they are devoid of crucial details - as if the reality of the society and dying struggles of the Jeweled Court have been entirely forgotten either intentionally or by accident. While the conventionally told portion is a well-told fantasy tale, what truly elevates this story is the meta-commentary provided by the travelogue sections highlights just how ephemeral the importance given to the tribulations faced by Lin and Sima actually was, and how critical events of the past can be obscured by the passage of time. Passages in which the relationship between a Jewel and their Lapidary are casually dismissed as "a conflation of multiple roles" show this decay with a stark harshness contained within the tranquil text of the travel guide. It is this casual disregard couched in almost soporific terms that is so very jarring, and makes it all the more brutal.

At first glance, The Jewel and Her Lapidary might seem like an ordinary, if well-written, little fantasy interlude. Once one starts the scratch the deceptively simple surface, however, one finds interlocking layer after layer of depth. Although Lin and Sima are the only two characters in the story who really feel fully fleshed out, their relationship is so intimately portrayed that it makes up for the fact that everyone else in the drama is essentially a one-note song. The fantastical magic set-up is intriguing, although it is not more than sketched out in outline form, but the characters sell the fact that the stakes surrounding it are incredibly high. Finally, the travel guide snippets worked into the interstitial areas of the story add a tone of almost bitter melancholy to the whole. All of these elements add together to make a beautiful novelette that has just enough to it to leave the reader feeling like they got a complete story, but still wanting more.

2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

Fran Wilde     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 22, 2017

Musical Monday - Avengers Theme


So, for the last nine years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been chugging along, and all of the various movies have been more or less building up to the two part Avengers story that starts in 2018 with Avengers: Infinity War and concludes in 2019 in what is currently being called "Unnamed Avengers Movie". I sort of suspect that the name of the 2019 Avengers movie is currently being withheld because the name itself would serve in some way as a spoiler for the plot of the first movie, and Marvel is playing with their cards close to their chest.

But I have a prediction, and it involves this theme song from way back in the first Avengers that was released in 2012. It is pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about Marvel that the villain of infinity war will be Thanos, and the plot will involve Thanos' quest to secure the six Infinity Stones so that he can complete the Infinity Gauntlet. Heck, just the name of the first of the two upcoming Avengers movies pretty much gives this away. Thus far, the movies have revealed the location of five of the Infinity Stones, with the six still left to be found. The sixth Infinity Stone might be revealed in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, but that's essentially the last chance that it will make an appearance before the Avengers: Infinity War movie. (Let's face it, it is pretty much not going to show up as a plot point in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and probably isn't going to be lying around in Wakanda to be picked up in Black Panther).

Whether the sixth Infinity Stone is found in Thor: Ragnarok is mostly beside the point, because the key fact is that Thanos does not yet have any of the stones in his possession. My prediction is the plot of Avengers: Infinity War is going to be the portion of the Avengers loyal to Tony Stark working with the Guardians of the Galaxy to try to beat Thanos to the Infinity Stone, and for the most part, failing. Stark will choose to go it alone, refusing to bring in Rogers or any of the other Avengers who took Steve's side in Civil War. Stark's truncated team will chase Thanos and his minions about, always coming up just slightly too late, until they have a big knock-down fight with him during which he secures the enough Infinity Stones to be able to pretty much wipe the floor with them and heads off to set in motion his nefarious plan to conquer the galaxy with his newfound power. Stark will have a soul-searching scene and then break out the cell phone Rogers sent him at the end of Civil War. The post-credit scenes will be Rogers assembling his people and then walking with them into Avengers headquarters, with Stark and the other Avengers waiting to greet them.

The as yet unnamed sequel to Avengers: Infinity War is going to be about healing the rift between Stark and Rogers, and figuring out a way to integrate the teams after the battles in Civil War. There will probably be some plot surrounding deciding who is going to lead the combined team as Stark and Rogers vie for the slot, and Quill is going to chafe at being expected to do as he is told (and he may even assert that he should be in charge, given that the Guardians include the only characters who have had direct contact with Thanos before). Since Captain Marvel and Ant Man and the Wasp will take place in between the two Avengers movies, I'm going to predict those characters will be integrated into the story in some significant manner. No matter what, I think there will be a scene in which some subgroup of the Avengers is fighting Thanos (with Thanos possibly having acquired the final Infinity Stone), with the rest of the heroes supposedly off dealing with some other problem. It will probably be Stark and a couple of the ones who stayed with him. And Thanos will have them on the ropes. Then Stark will send a signal, and Rogers will appear and say the line that has yet to be said in any of the movies thus far, but which they have been teasing audiences with:

"Avengers, Assemble!"

And then, every single super-hero who has appeared on screen in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie will show up alongside Captain America and line up for a beautiful shot mimicking the scene from the first Avengers movie with all the team standing together ready for battle, accompanied by the same music on the same crescendo. The audience will erupt in cheers and punch the air. It will be glorious.

At least that's my prediction for what is going to happen in the movies.

Previous Musical Monday: Iron Man Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Section 60 by Kansas

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Blogger Hop May 19th - May 25th: The Peugeot 204 Was the Best-Selling Car in France from 1969 Through 1971


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What do you do with books you no longer want? Do you donate them? Do you take them to a half-price bookstore? Does a friend or family member benefit?

For the most part, the only books that I "no longer want" are books that are duplicates of other books in my collection. Some of these are the result of merging my collection with the redhead's collection when we got married, and others are the result of me buying the same book twice, usually because I wasn't paying enough attention when I was shopping for books at a library sale or used book store.

I used to compare the two sets to figure out which of my duplicate books were in better conditions and then either give the excess books away to friends or donate them to library sales. Since I moved into my current living space, I have a lot of my books stored in boxes, so I can't make these sorts of comparisons most of the time. As I am loath to give up my duplicates without making the comparison, most of these books are now stored in a closet, waiting for the day when I move and can properly sort through them. At that point, I'll probably let my friends go through all of the books I am disposing of and after they have done their part, I'll make a substantial donation of books to whatever local charities seem worthwhile.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Monday, May 15, 2017

Musical Monday - Iron Man Theme


Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 was released just a few weeks ago and has been raking in cash at the box office. It was the fifteenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released, and we are going to get two more - Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok - before the end of the year, with several more scheduled in the next few years. The combined gross box office of the series is somewhere slightly north of eleven and a half billion dollars thus far. At this point, it is reasonable to expect that we will see movies set in this shared cinematic universe released for the foreseeable future.

It is almost hard to believe, but the movie that started this all, the first Iron Man movie, was only released nine years ago, in May of 2008. And while in retrospect it seems inevitable that the sprawling Marvel movie franchise would emerge from that beginning, at the time it was very much a risky gamble. One has to remember that before 2008, Iron Man was considered to be one of Marvel's less marketable heroes - they only owned the rights to Iron Man (and the rest of the Avengers) because no one was interested in buying them when Marvel was offering the live action rights to their various characters at fire sale prices in the 1990s. There were probably a fair number of people who had heard of Thor and Captain America, but does anyone really think there was a crowd clamoring for movies about them to be made?

Not only that, the notion that these movies would all be connected was almost radical in conception. Sure, there had been movie series before - the Star Wars movies all followed on one another (or in the case of the prequels, happened before the others), and the Lord of the Rings and X-Men movies has also been successful as movie series. Plus, there is the incredibly long-lived Bond movie franchise as well. But all of those movies told the story of more or less the same group of people in their continuing adventures. Every Bond movie features Bond, and for most of their run, the same M, Q, and Moneypenny. The Lord of the Rings movies all tell the story of a single group of people as they fight a war against the forces of evil. And so on. The Marvel movies, on the other hand will focus on one character and their supporting cast for a movie, and then skip over to an almost entirely different set of characters in the next, and yet a third group in the next, only every now and then having everyone get together for a big joint adventure and go their separate ways. Even though they are part of this "shared universe", the Guardians of the Galaxy have now appeared in two movies, and have yet to join up with anyone else in the movie series yet, and we probably won't see them do so until after the next three movies. This is a style of movie making that really has never been tried before, and the fact that it worked so well kind of serves to obscure just how unprecedented it is.

And it started with Iron Man. A movie about a character who was decidedly second-tier in marketability and starring an actor who was a bargain to secure because of his own issues. From this unlikely seed grew the juggernaut that we see today. Did anyone predict this back in 2008? Could anyone have predicted this in 2008?

Previous Musical Monday: Brandy (You're a Fine Girl) by Looking Glass
Subsequent Musical Monday: Avengers Theme

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Blogger Hop May 12th - May 18th: Septimius Severus Rebuilt Byzantium in 203 A.D.


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: If you read a book you ended up hating, would you stay away from future books by that author, or would you give them a second chance?

I'm going to make a distinction here between books I read just because I want to, and books I read because I have agreed to review them. I generally try to only agree to review books that I think I will enjoy on some level, and reject a fair number of books that are offered to me for that purpose simply because I don't really think that I will find the experience of reading them to be rewarding. To be blunt, I would prefer to read and review books that I like, because it is quite simply a better experience. There is some cathartic enjoyment to be gotten out of writing a review laying into a really bad book after suffering through reading it, but all things considered, I'd rather skip having to read bad books.

However, sometimes my powers of prognostication fail me, and I end up with a book in my hands that I agreed to review that is also deeply flawed in some way, and I have to struggle through it. For the most part, if I agree to review a book that is part of a series, I try to make an effort to read through the series, at least up through the point that the book in question appears. This means that in some cases (and anyone who wants to figure out what those cases might be can go through the reviews I have done of book series and see which ones I really didn't like) I have slogged through several books by one author just to get to the one book I agreed to review and be able to place it in proper context.

To a lesser extent, when I am reading books that have been nominated for some of the major awards in genre fiction that happen to be part of a series, I also try to read all the books in that series, so I can place them in proper context when I write my reviews of them. This is especially true of books that have been nominated for the Hugo Award, as I am a voter for that award, and I want to be able to accurately judge the nominated works before I cast my ballot.

That said, when I am reading books that I have simply picked up to read, if the book is not good, I am much less likely to go back to that same well again in the future.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, May 12, 2017

2017 Locus Award Nominees

Location: Seattle, Washington.

Comments: At this point in history, a question that comes to mind is "what is the purpose of the Locus Awards?" When they were conceived, the Locus Award was intended to provide recommendations for people nominating for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, but that hasn't been true for a while now, and literally cannot be the case in recent years. The Locus Award nominees for 2017 were announced on May 12, while the Nebula Award nominees were announced back in February, and the Hugo Award finalists were announced in the first week in April. Even the Stoker Award nominees were announced in late February. Currently, the Locus Awards are one of the later awards to announce their nominees in the year, so they really aren't recommending much to anyone.

Some awards are designed with a specific purpose in mind - the Tiptree Award is given for works that examine gender roles, the Prometheus Award is supposed to be to honor libertarian science fiction, and the Lambda Award is for works of gay and lesbian literature, just to name a few. But the Locus Award doesn't have a similarly themed purpose. This seems to be due to its genesis as a list of recommendations for the general science fiction and fantasy awards, but now that that purpose is gone, there's nothing that really makes the Locus Award anything more than a discount version of the Hugo or Nebula Awards. There's nothing really wrong with being the undercard of genre fiction awards, but is that all the Locus Award really is?

Best Science Fiction Novel
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
After Atlas by Emma Newman
Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Death’s End by Cixin Liu
Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson
The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
Take Back the Sky by Greg Bear
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Visitor by C.J. Cherryh

Best Fantasy Novel
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
Necessity by Jo Walton
The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Best Horror Novel
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R.S. Belcher
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest
Fellside by M.R. Carey
The Fireman by Joe Hill
The Fisherman by John Langan
HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Best Young Adult Book
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Goldenhand by Garth Nix
Lois Lane: Double Down by Gwenda Bond
Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Best First Novel
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Infomocracy by Malka Older
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
The Reader by Traci Chee
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Vigil by Angela Slatter
Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen

Best Novella
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds
The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell
Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Best Novelette
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allan
Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee
The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente
The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
Pearl by Aliette de Bodard
Red as Blood and White as Bone by Theodora Goss
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Those Shadows Laugh by Geoff Ryman
The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod
You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong

Best Short Story
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Afrofuturist 419 by Nnedi Okorafor
The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
A Salvaging of Ghosts by Aliette de Bodard
Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal el-Mohtar
Seven Birthdays by Ken Liu
Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee by Alastair Reynolds
The Story of Kao Yu by Peter S. Beagle
That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn

Best Collection
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Best of Ian McDonald by Ian McDonald
Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds by Alastair Reynolds
The Complete Orsinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip
The Found and the Lost by Ursula K. Le Guin
Hwarhath Stories: Twelve Transgressive Tales by Aliens by Eleanor Arnason
A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford
Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

Best Anthology
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten edited by Jonathan Strahan
The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
Bridging Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan
Children of Lovecraft edited by Ellen Datlow
Drowned Worlds edited by Jonathan Strahan
Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Mikki Kendall and Chesya Burke
Invisible Planets edited by Ken Liu
The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe
Tremontaine edited by Ellen Kushner
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Book
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
The History of Science Fiction: Second Edition by Adam Roberts
Octavia E. Butler by Gerry Canavan
Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981-1990 by Mike Ashley
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction by André M. Carrington
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick
Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman
Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books 2000-2016 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Art Book
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
The Art of the Film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them edited by Dermot Power
Beauty and the Beast by Mahlon F. Craft and Kinuko Y. Craft
Descants & Cadences: The Art of Stephanie Law by Stephanie Law
Myth & Magic: An Enchanted Fantasy Coloring Book by Kinuko Y. Craft
Spaceships: An Illustrated History of the Real and the Imagined by Ron Miller
The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Shaun Tan
Spectrum 23: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art edited by John Fleskes
Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie by Ralph McQuarrie
Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie by Charles Vess
Yoshitaka Amano: Illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano

Best Editor
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow
Gardner Dozois
Charles Coleman Finlay
Jonathan Strahan
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
Sheila Williams
Navah Wolfe

Best Magazine
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Asimov’s Science Fiction
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Clarkesworld
Fantasy & Science Fiction
File 770
Lightspeed
Strange Horizons
Tor.com
Uncanny Magazine

Best Publisher or Imprint
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Angry Robot
Baen
DAW
Gollancz
Orbit
Saga
Small Beer
Subterranean
Tachyon
Tor

Best Artist
Winner:
TBA

Other Nominees:
Kinuko Y. Craft
Galen Dara
Julie Dillon
Bob Eggleton
Donato Giancola
Victo Ngai
John Picacio
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess
Michael Whelan

Go to previous year's nominees: 2016
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2018

Book Award Reviews     Home

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review - Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey


Short review: The alien protomolecule has placed a Ring in the outer reaches of the Solar System, so humanity naturally has to go and screw around with it. Of course, they also bring their warships to threaten each other as well.

Haiku
Beyond Uranus
The Ring sits, waiting for who?
Ants play with fire

Full review: Abaddon's Gate is the third book in the Expanse series of space opera-ish novels by James S.A. Corey. After a strong start with Leviathan Wakes, the series slumped a bit with the slightly disappointing Caliban's War, so one might be concerned that the series would continue to slip in this volume. Such concerns are unfounded, however, as this installment takes the solid foundation laid by the earlier books and uses it as a launching point to jump off to even greater heights. While the earlier books have mostly involved the internecine squabbles of humanity with the inchoate menace of the alien protomolecule lurking in the background, this volume sets the inscrutable and nigh incomprehensible alien technology front and center, forcing the characters to deal with both the opportunities and the threats that flow from its presence.

The central feature of this volume is the mysterious alien Ring that was formed when the protomolecule concluded its programming on Venus and launched itself into the outer reaches of the Solar System, taking up residence near the orbit of Uranus. Once there, it sits unmolested but carefully observed until a joyriding teenager looking to make a name for himself aims his "slingshot" craft at the Ring and goes through, with not entirely expected, not entirely clear, but quite obviously messy results. This seems to spark all three of the major powers to send expeditions to study the structure, and sets the plot of the book in motion.

As with the previous novels in the series the story is told from a perspective that rotates among a group of viewpoint characters. Holden returns once again as a viewpoint character, bringing with him the rest of the crew of the Rocinante, no longer connected with Fred Johnson or the OPA in any official manner. The deceased Miller has continued to visit Holden as he did at the close of Caliban's War, making Holden leery of the idea of going anywhere near the mysterious Ring. Now that they are a crew of freelancers, Holden and his compatriots have contracted to carry a shipment as far away from the Ring as they can go, but find themselves unable to do so due to their embroilment in a legal dispute with the government of Mars over the ownership of their ship. This dispute that is temporarily put on hold by the intervention of the reporter Monica Stuart, but at the cost of accepting her contract to transport her and her film crew to the combined fleet of Earther, Martian, and OPA ships gathering around the Ring.

The other viewpoint characters in the novel are all new, starting with Bull, one of Fred Johnson's trusted lieutenants in the OPA, who is a tough and competent ex-Marine, but unfortunately is originally from Earth. Unwilling to be left out of the investigation into the secrets of the Ring, the OPA has taken the recovered Nauvoo, armed it with some missiles and railguns and rechristened it the Behemoth before sending it out to meet the other fleets. Because of his birthplace and at Captain Ashford's insistence, Bull is demoted from his projected position of Executive Officer of the Behemoth, and is instead assigned as Chief of Security. Much of Bull's part in the story involves him butting heads with the officious and incompetent Captain Ashford and the suspicious by capable Executive Officer Pa - conflicts that result in disastrous consequences for pretty much everyone. Much as with Havelock in the first book, Bull's experiences illustrate the persistent prejudice Belters hold against Earthers, and the effect of those prejudices is to cause many of those around him to lose sight of his basic competence, to their own detriment.

Also taking position as a viewpoint character is Pastor Anna, a Methodist minister of Russian ancestry working on Ceres. She is invited to accompany the U.N. expedition to the Ring as part of its complement of religious leaders that are more or less supposed to find "meaning" in the enigmatic structure. Anna is almost wholly a good person, which is a type of character that has not shown up in the series thus far. She loves her wife and child, and always tries to find the best part of everyone she meets. She is caring, kind, and generous, even in the face of open and deadly hostility. This sort of character is often hard to write - they can feel either hopelessly and unrealistically naive, or wind up being so sickly sweet that their mere presence is cloying. Corey's presentation of Anna in the book manages to avoid these potential pitfalls, and she emerges as the moral center of the book. Having Anna in the book also allows the authors to  highlight a number of secondary characters, such as a U.N. naval officer, a poet travelling with the U.N. contingent, and a hard-nosed and somewhat sourly disposed marine, as she becomes something of a focus for the various "ordinary" people in the crew to reach out to in times of need.

The final new viewpoint character in the novel is Clarissa Mao, the younger sister of Julie Mao, recently consumed by the protomolecule, and the daughter of disgraced industrialist Jules-Pierre Mao. She has identified Holden as the source of her father's downfall and spends much of the book implementing a complex and murderous plan of vengeance. Like Anna, Clarissa is a type of character that has not been used as a viewpoint character before. Unlike Anna, Clarissa is unique in that she is essentially the villain of the story, which is a perspective that readers of the series have not had previously. One might also note that Clarissa isn't entirely a mirror image of Anna, because while she is a homicidal villain, she is not wholly evil, but is rather merely mostly evil but possibly redeemable. This is not to downplay the horrific actions she engages in, but there are hints in the story that her father may have been so controlling during her childhood that his actions amount to abuse, resulting in a child who grew up to be a borderline sociopath willing to do anything to please the man who raised her no matter the cost.

Whereas the previous novels leaned heavily on the excellently drawn characters to keep the book going when the plot faltered and lost its way, Abaddon's Gate takes these characters and puts them into a story that is strong in its own right. Once Clarissa puts her plan into explosive action, everyone is essentially forced to confront the alien artifact in all of its inexplicable and ultimately incredibly dangerous glory - and even when confronted by an almost inscrutable enigma that clearly demonstrates that it has the power to casually kill every single human in its vicinity, the various factions present can't seem to stop trying to hurry that process along by killing each other. To be blunt, the thrust of the plot of this book is that when confronted by an alien power that is potentially hostile, and is at least unconcerned with human life, at least some humans will respond by shooting their fellow humans in the face over petty, internecine squabbles.

One of the most difficult things for a writer to successfully pull off in science fiction is to portray something that is truly beyond human experience. When presenting something intended to be alien and unknown, one runs the risk of either making it too alien, and as a result incomprehensible to the reader, or not quite alien enough, and thus making what should be enigmatic and mysterious seem boring and mundane. Corey manages to provide something that strikes the delicate balance between these two traps in large part by having Miller serve as the bridge between the alien artifact at the heart of this story, and the humans who are floating about it with as much understanding of what it is and what it is for as a colony of ants have for the lawnmower upon which they are crawling. One of the ways that they make the artifact both cryptic and intriguing is Miller's own incomplete ability to explain it - he is able to describe some of the things it does, but not how it does them, and more importantly why it was built and who built it. In this way, the reason for the "slow zone" beyond the gate is explained, but how such a zone is created is not. The existence of the alien creatures that created the protomolecule and all of the other alien technology in the books is acknowledged, but what happened to them remains unknown. And so on. This book is, in large part, about how humans react to something entirely mystifying, and the authors make that work by having a quite mystifying centerpiece to the entire book.

Putting the alien artifact literally at the center of the action sets up the main conflict, which is not between the various competing political factions, but is rather a philosophical battle between Pastor Anna and cynical televangelist Hector Cortez. Anna always tries to see the best in all humanity, and her reaction to the awe inspiring albeit deadly dangerous potential of what lies beyond the Ring proceeds accordingly. Cortez, on the other hand, only sees the danger this new reality poses, and sets about organizing a faction dedicated to putting an end to that danger, even if it is at the cost of the tantalizing possibilities that are offered alongside it. The mutual distrust and outright hostility exhibited by the Earthers, Martians, and Belters towards one another is still the engine that drives much of the action forward, and their actions are what draw the increasingly lethal responses. The savage gunfights and desperate struggles between the various players are interesting and exciting, but in a very real sense, they are a sideshow. The real question at the heart of this book is whether humanity will face the alien and unknown with hope or with fear, and that is pretty much the definition of big idea science fiction which is what sets this book apart from the two previous books in the series.

Abaddon's Gate represents a turning point in the Expanse series. In the first two books, the meat of the story was the conflicts that arose among humanity flavored with a taste of alien weirdness in the background. To the extent that humanity's story intersected with the alien presence, it was more or less akin to a monkey poking a dangerous piece of lab equipment with a stick. The protomolecule was something one screwed around with at their peril, and the best option a person had was to simply run from it and things produced by it, and just hope to be able to get away and remain alive. In this book, humanity still doesn't really understand any of the alien technology they are confronted with (and that lack of understanding is certain to have terrible consequences in future books), but humanity has a choice as to how to interact with it that amounts to more than "keep a wary distance or probably die a horrible death". As a capstone to this sudden agency on the part of humanity, the book also hands one of the most terrifying twists to the story that it could, but it is a twist that is so incredibly subtle that it takes a bit to realize just how awful it truly is. The Expanse was already a pretty good series, but with Abaddon's Gate it steps forward, opens the story up to greater horizons that were possible before, and develops into a great series.

Previous book in the series: Caliban's War
Subsequent book in the series: Cibola Burn

2013 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Redshirts by John Scalzi
2015 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Science Fiction Novel

2014 Hugo Award Longlist
2014 Locus Award Nominees

James S.A. Corey     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review - Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire


Short review: Nancy went to a twilight realm of the dead and found her home. Then she came back to our world and has to deal with being exiled from the only place that she ever fit in.

Haiku
People who don't fit
Find other worlds where they do
Sometimes they come back.

Full review: The literary world is replete with stories about precocious or misunderstood children who stumble upon a gateway to another world and find themselves in a fantasy realm of wonder and mystery. Once there, these children have adventures in which they discover their true selves, learn life lessons, and become who they were meant to be. At the end of these stories, those children return home with their lives utterly changed, presumably for the better. Every Heart a Doorway proceeds to ask the next question: Then what happens?

Nancy is one such child. After a lifetime of not fitting in, she journeyed to a land of the dead filled with shades and pomegranate seeds in which she learned to be still like a statue at the behest of that cold and silent land's rulers. In this strange and cold world, Nancy finally felt like she belonged - like she had found her true home, but when she asked to stay forever, her Lord told her to return to Earth to be sure, and now she doesn't know the way back into the realm of the dead. Unable to understand their now somewhat creepy child, Nancy's parents send her to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in the hopes that she might be "fixed" and become normal like all the other children they know. But Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is not dedicated to "fixing" the children who enter its doors, but is rather intended as a place of refuge and understanding that attempts to allow children who have returned from a journey to another world to cope with their loss. As is made clear in the story, the children who have made the trip through a door or other portal into a different world that is made up of cotton candy or skeletons or faerie nobility are lost when they finally return. Having gotten a taste of how it feels to be "home" in their new world, these children no longer fit into ours even to the uncomfortable extent that they ever did in the first place.

Fundamentally, Every Heart a Doorway is about misfits - the children in the book found their doorways to other worlds because they didn't quite fit into our own. It was only in these other worlds that these children felt truly loved and accepted, and now that they have returned to our world they find themselves once again in a place where they are the square peg for a round hole. In a sense, Eleanor West's institution attempts to provide a substitute home for these misfits, giving them a place of refuge and safety. In part, this is the purpose of the labels that are used for the various worlds that the children had returned from: Some children went to a "Nonsense" world, others to a "Logic" world, or to a world of "Wickedness" or "Virtue" or a world on some other part of the axis constructed to try to make sense of the mystical journeys they had returned from. By labeling these worlds and organizing them into a comprehensive structure, the instructors at Eleanor's Home for Wayward Children are showing their charges that they are not alone - that there are others who shared similar experiences, and that they can belong, even if it is little more than a pale reflection of the belonging they felt when they journeyed off to the world in which they fit perfectly.

In that vein, it seems that it is no accident that so many of the students at Eleanor's Home for Wayward Children are misfits in other ways than their shared otherworldly travels. The majority of the students are girls, and we are told that this is because girls can go unnoticed by those closest to them, whereas a boy who wandered would, in most cases, result in a search party being sent to recover him. Girls, it seems, simply don't really fit the society of our world. Further, several of the students are out of the ordinary in other ways: Nancy is asexual, Kade is transgender, other students are gay, and so on. The sexualities and gender identities of the students mark them as being "different" in our world, and the acceptance they generally find in Eleanor West's care is the counter for the rejection they experience elsewhere. These elements are, in some cases, even what got these students ejected from their otherworlds - Kade, for example, was tossed out of the fairyland he had found his place in when the inhabitants discovered that he was a transgender boy.

The real point, it seems, is that there is no safe place in the world, even if one does belong there. As Eleanor herself notes, many of the worlds the various children found their place in would be horrific nightmare realms for many others, and in some cases, even when a child fits into an otherworld, it is still a horrible place. Christopher went to a world of walking skeletons. Jack and Jill went to a world of gloomy moors where Jack apprenticed with a mad scientist and Jill served an inhuman monster. Other children went to worlds where they romanced insects, or cavorted with capricious fairies, or some other terrifying scenario. The point is that even though they belonged to these worlds, none of them were safe, not even the Nonsense worlds full of candy cane trees and cotton candy clouds.

After a fair amount of world-building, the story winds its way to the plot, which is an almost desultory murder mystery involving the students at the Home for Wayward Children. When one student turns up dead and mutilated, shock waves run through the school, and suspicion falls upon those students who went to some of the less than cheerful worlds, including the newcomer Nancy. When a second student turns up dead and also mutilated, the paranoia goes through the roof. On the one hand, these murders reinforce the notion that there are no safe places, but on the other, the resolution of the mystery feels so perfunctory that it lacks any real emotional punch. After the brilliance of the world-building and the interesting characters who populate it, the murder mystery plot is somewhat disappointing.

Aside from the minor misstep of the murder mystery, Every Heart a Doorway is a stunning and evocative story. Set in a world in which the exiles from the other, in some ways better, worlds find themselves, the story paints a starkly beautiful picture, and gives the reader a glimpse into the mind of people who never thought they would fit in who found their perfect place, and now must face the harsh reality that the sense of belonging that they discovered is now gone, and may not ever return. The story even includes an almost gratuitous but ultimately pitch-perfect swipe at C.S. Lewis that sets the tone in a splendid manner. This story is a love-letter to everyone who ever felt left out, who ever felt like this wasn't the right world for them to be living in, or who ever yearned to be allowed to be their authentic self, but it should be read by everyone.

2016 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
2017 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella: TBD

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novella

2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

Seanan McGuire     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 8, 2017

Musical Monday - Brandy (You're a Fine Girl) by Looking Glass


I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. The movie was really good. If you have not, you should go see it. No, I mean go see it. Now. I can wait.

Okay, so you're back. Now that you've seen it, I'm guessing that you agree that the latest cinematic installment of Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantastic film. The old characters are all just as good as they were in the first movie, the new characters are all interesting and fit into the fictional universe almost perfectly, the villain is appropriately big and villainous, the story is strong, and the action sequences are excellent. These movies are big, splashy super-hero themed space opera that often reminds me of the over the top portions of classic science fiction works like the Lensman series.

But, all that said, what really puts the Guardians of the Galaxy movies over the top are their use of music to help tell the story. Despite ostensibly being about a kind of super-heroish team of characters who are kind of super-heroes in both powers and inclination, these movies are really about Peter Quill, and nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than in the 1970s themed soundtrack. The music is all drawn directly from Quill's childhood, and in this movie, from the music his parents listened to (and which Quill's mother passed down to him) during their somewhat ill-fated romance. This music sets the tone for the entire movie, and it is unequivocally part of Quill.

There are some movies that have used a soundtrack made up of popular music as well as the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies have - American Graffiti and The Big Chill are two that spring to mind - but in those other cases, the primary purpose of the music was to create a sense of nostalgia. The music in American Graffiti was intended to evoke a sense of nostalgia in its audience, reminding them of their youth, and the music in The Big Chill was intended to convey the fact that the characters in its story were engaged in a nostalgia trip of their own. To a certain extent, Quill's love of classic hits from the 1970s is his attempt to keep his memories of his childhood on Earth before his mother's death alive, as well as an attempt to remain connected with his mother's memory. But for Quill, this music isn't just the music of the past, it is quite clear that in his mind, this is the music of Earth, and also the music of his here and now.

The Guardians of the Galaxy films are so intimately connected to their 1970s soundtracks, that it is almost impossible to think of the movies without them. When I consider if the movies would have worked nearly as well without these songs, I have to conclude that they would not, and quite possibly would simply not be good at all. The soundtracks are, I think, really that important to elevating these movies from being merely average to being excellent.

Previous Musical Monday: Convoy by C.W. McCall
Subsequent Musical Monday: Iron Man Theme

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review - Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey


Short review: A new kind of super soldier destroys the fragile peace on Ganymede, and James Holden once again finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to exploit the alien protomolecule no matter the cost in human lives.

Haiku
Dead Marine platoon
Wrecked lunar ecology
All for more profits

Full review: Caliban's War continues the story started in Leviathan Wakes, with James Holden returning along with the rest of the crew of the Rocinante to deal with yet another interplanetary crisis. They are joined by new characters who replace the missing Detective Miller as view point characters - the tough Martian marine Bobbie, the naive Ganymedean botanist Prax, and the calculating and shrewd U.N. official Avasarala, all of whom must navigate the crisis caused by the raw tensions between the governments of Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Against the backdrop of this raging internecine human conflict, the mysterious alien protomolecule carries out its enigmatic programming on the surface of Venus, sitting in the back of everyone's mind like a puzzle they cannot understand and an itch they cannot scratch.

As the second novel in the Expanse series, the primary question one must ask about Caliban's War is does the novel suffer from the "sophomore slump" that plagues so many sequels. The answer to a certain extent, is yes. Although the plot of this book isn't bad, a lot of it feels like a rehash of the plot of the first book in the series. A mysterious entity has been experimenting with the protomolecule, with unexpected and lethal results, just like in Leviathan Wakes. To cover up their activities, the evil doers have sparked a war by exploiting the tensions between Earth, Mars, and the OPA, just like in Leviathan Wakes. A missing daughter turns out to be the key to figuring out what the nefarious forces are up to, just like in Leviathan Wakes. Holden uses his fame in an effort to publicize a problem, and mostly makes things worse, just like in Leviathan Wakes. And so on. Further, the entire book feels almost like a place holder that exists mostly to put some distance between the big revelation concerning the alien protomolecule that took place at the end of Leviathan Wakes and the big revelation concerning the alien protomolecule that takes place at the end of this book.

From one perspective, the similarities between this volume and the previous one in the series are not really a weakness, as Leviathan Wakes is a really good book, which means that even though there is a lot in Caliban's War that echoes the plot of its predecessor, it is at least a decent framework to use. What ultimately saves this book is also what made the first book so good even when its plot was kind of wandering: The characters, from the primary viewpoint characters all the way down to the bit players who pass through the narrative once and then move on with their lives. Holden is back as the only viewpoint character to move from the first novel to this one, but his experiences have changed him. Whereas once he was a naive idealist, he has become a harder and rougher man, more callous, more willing to resort to violence, and more suspicious, but there is still enough of the old Holden left in him that when a distraught scientist looking for his missing daughter pleads for help, he can't turn the man down.

Three new characters step into the void left by the apparent deaths of Joe Miller and Julie Mao, and the distancing of Fred Johnson, with the book rotating between chapters told from their perspectives mixed in with chapters related in Holden's voice. The first is Bobbie Draper, a veteran Martian marine of Polynesian descent with a mountainous physique stationed on Ganymede whose entire unit is annihilated by an alien creature in the opening pages of the book. As the sole survivor of the attack that sparked a disastrous confrontation between the Martian troops and the U.N. forces on this economically vital moon of Jupiter, Bobbie finds herself thrust into the maelstrom of interplanetary politics and swept into events beyond her control. As a tough and experienced Marine, Bobbie is used to a world of discipline, honor, and loyalty. In the course of the story, she finds herself working alongside people for whom those values are not quite as important, in situations where she is a fish out of water. When Bobbie goes to Earth, the reader sees its society through her eyes. When the authors need to explain the ins and outs of the various political machinations to the reader, they do so by having Avasarala explain them to Bobbie. In many ways, Bobbie is the reader's window into the workings of Earth's government and society, a window that is made more effective by her own unfamiliarity with the subjects.

Also present for the disaster on Ganymede is Praxdike Meng, the Chief Botanist of a soy farm project on Ganymede whose work on engineering a superior strain of soybean is interrupted by the conflict that erupts on and above the moon, and whose daughter Mei is abducted in the very opening chapter of the book. Much of Prax's part in the story is taken up by his efforts to locate his missing daughter - a set of efforts that quite serendipitously turn out to be integral to figuring out what the villains experimenting with the protomolecule are up to. Unlike Bobbie, who is whisked away from Ganymede almost as soon as the shooting is over, Prax remains behind, and gives the reader an eyewitness to the disintegration and collapse of the Ganymedean infrastructure and biosphere. As in the first book, one of the elements that makes this series so good is the way that the authors convey the lived-in nature of the universe they have created, and in Caliban's War, no character conveys that as well as Prax does in the chapters in which he is trying to scrape by in the collapsing society left behind by the bombs and bullets of the Mars-Earth conflict. Unlike Bobbie, Prax is intimately familiar with the world that surrounds him, and knows (and conveys to the reader) exactly how it is progressively failing.

The final viewpoint character is Chrisjen Avasarala, a seventy year old Indian woman who is the third most powerful figure in the U.N. government that runs Earth. As a somewhat cynical and world-weary government official who is dedicated to getting to the bottom of what actually happened on Ganymede, Avasarala mostly fills the role Miller played in the first book, but since she has so much more political clout, everything she does in this vein is more of less Miller writ large, for good and for ill. The most notable thing about Avasarala is how different she is from all of the other viewpoint characters in the series thus far. Other than Avasarala, the books have had an officer on an ice freighter, an alcoholic detective in a backwater colony, a grunt Marine assigned to duty on a distant moon, and a divorced botanical researcher - all characters whose lives could best be described as ordinary, or even boring before their entanglement in the events of the books. In some cases, these character were at a dead-end in their careers and lives. Avasarala, on the other hand, is the one character for whom being involved in big events is not a fluke. In fact, Avasarala has spent much of her life intentionally inserting herself into world and even Solar system changing events. She is the one character who could be described as a "mover and a shaker", and as such, she provides a perspective on events that is unique in the series to this point.

The other element that makes this book work as well as it does is how, just like in Leviathan Wakes, the authors make their fictional world feel like a lived in place. One way that this book does that is by making things that were mentioned in passing in the previous book into important plot points in this one. When Avasarala is sent off on an investigatory mission to Ganymede, she is booked on the luxury space yacht of Jules-Pierre Mao, the man who had issued the contract to track down his daughter that sent Joe Miller on his quest in Leviathan Wakes. When Avasarala and Bobbie need to speed up their journey, they take over Julie's racing ship the Razorback, which was previously only mentioned in passing during Miller's investigation. It is these threads of connection that help tie the series together, and link the books together, but they also help make the world feel complete - the racing boat wasn't just some character building detail that served its purpose and then left the narrative, but is rather something that feels like it has its own existence that continues off-stage.

Although Caliban's War represents something of a mild drop-off in quality following Leviathan Wakes, it remains a strong book. To be blunt, the first volume in the series was so good that there was a lot of room for this book to drop-off into before it became disappointing. As noted above, the plot of this book does feel at times like a rehash of the plot of the first book, and one gets the sense that the primary reason this volume exists is to put some mental distance between the last big thing the protomolecule did and the big thing the protomolecule does at the end of this book, but there is still enough here to make this book worth one's reading time. The development of the new characters, the development of the fictional world they live in, and the deepening of the mystery of the alien protomolecule all serve the rescue this book from its rather rote plot, and keep the series as a whole moving forward. In the end, Caliban's War represents a minor sophomore slump, but is still good enough to be a superior book.

Previous book in the series: Leviathan Wakes
Subsequent book in the series: Abaddon's Gate

2013 Hugo Award Longlist
2013 Locus Award Nominees

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