Book Review: Fantasy: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

thepoppywar

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Category: Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Length:  544 pages
ISBN-10: 0062662597
ISBN-13: 9780062662590

Series or Standalone: Series (The Poppy War #1)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, Anger, Genocide, War
POV: 3rd Person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Because there was tons of hype and the setting and premise sounded really interesting.  I managed to borrow a review copy from a friend, but I also bought the book in hardcover.  Drug-induced magic?  Obviously.

Reviewer: Atsiko

Disclaimer:  I want to be very clear from the beginning that I am a white dude from the Midwest, in case there was any confusion.  See how this figure into the review blow.

Review:

I struggled a bit on whether to review this book or not.  There was a lot of hype I didn’t feel the book lived up to it.  Also the Twitter controversy in which I was partially involved.

However, I realized I was being unfair to the book.  The Poppy War is a very solid debut, and I’m really looking forward to what the author does with the sequels and especially with her next step after this series is complete.

I want to start off by saying that the book is certainly grimdark, though not your traditional such novel.  And it’s not nearly as “brutal” as advertised.  There were only one or two scenes I would describe with that adjective, and most of the brutality in the novel takes place off the page, often relayed to the character after the fact by acquaintances.

But, where the brutality is written, it is very effective, creating in the characters exactly what I would expect to see their reactions be given the situation.  Major points for that, even if it was a bit heavy-handed.

The magic system was a delight.  I’ve always loved the idea of mixing drugs and addiction with magic, and Kuang has done so extremely well in this book.  I would also cite it as a shining example of how you can construct and interesting and useful magic “system” without getting bogged down in the rules and mechanics.  Now, you all probably know from here and my blog that I love getting bogged down in the inner workings of magic systems.  But when a writer shows how you can add enormous tension and excitement to a story without digging into the gears and shafts, I sit up and take notice.

The main character was interesting.  I loved how she was willing to take any measure to succeed at her goals and that she was willing and able to be a pro-active instead of reactive character.  A lot of books, fantasy and otherwise, are plagued by reactive characters whose enemies and circumstances drive the plot, but not so with Rin.

Now, although the magic system was top tier, the world-building was a bit shallow and shaky for me.  I confess I may just not have the right culture context to really appreciate everything going on in the book.  Perhaps someone more immersed in Chinese history and culture would have appreciated Kuang’s work more knowledgably.  I do know the history Kuang is referencing in the book, although I learned it mostly from the Japanese perspective in college.  And I’ve also read primary sources of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking.  But that’s not the same as being raised with the spectre of these atrocities ever in the background of your mind.

That said, I felt that the author maybe relied a little too heavily on the reader knowing the real-world history the novel is based on.  There were lots of names and concepts thrown around, but not a lot of meet for the reader to bite into.  I did like how the information on all three powers was introduced in political context, almost being war propaganda by default.  But I would have liked a bit more detail.

The plot of the novel and the pacing were both problem points for me.  I didn’t feel like the military boarding school parts were very fleshed out.  They felt like the author leaned heavily on the tropes of that genre to carry the plot.  The legacy/aristocratic bully, the harsh teacher, the goofy teacher who teaches the protag how they are special.  Etc.  I also felt it passed fairly quickly.  Then, the war aspects also felt rushed.  Although there were some powerful climaxes, they didn’t have the build-up to really make them shine.  Which is too bad, because there were the seeds of some great story in here.

Finally, the writing itself was lacking for me.  There were some odd repetitions, sometimes in the same paragraph.  There were good parts, too.  I was invested enough to read the book all in one five-hour sitting.  The writing is obviously good enough to be published.  I think the book is overall quite competently constructed.  But the small holes nonetheless exposed some of the thinness of the frame, and on occasion it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Overall, this was a solid debut.  I do look forward both to the sequels and to future work from R.F. Kuang.  I sincerely hope the hype drives enough sales to keep her interested in publishing.

 

ETA:  There’s been a lot of conversation on Twitter about the issue of tired tropes and how they may be tired for white cishet people but not for LGBTQIUA or non-white folks.  As a cishet white person, I can’t always speak to that issue in my reviews.  While I don’t retract my opinion on the novel on that basis, people should take it with a sack of salt when I’m discussing a book by a marginalized author or a marginalized character.

 

Conclusion: 72/100 (A solid debut, author is one to watch)
Premise:  8/10 (I’m a sucker for magic and drugs mixed)
Plot:  6/10 (A bit formulaic)
Setting:  6/10 (Clear influences, no real originality)
Main Character:  7/10 (Interesting but shallowly drawn and a bit plot-driven)
World-building  7/10 (The concepts rocked, the execution was a bit lackluster)
Magic System 10/10 (Fantastic examples of a rule-less magic system)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (A few interesting ones, little real development)
Writing:  7/10 (Readable but with some odd flaws)
Themes:  7/10 (Straight-forward, cool ending)
Resolution:  8/10 (Dramatic, but not really explored)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying if you’re looking for non-European fantasy or fantasy with a good female protagonist.

Similar Books:

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Publishers Weekly
The Skiffy and Fanty Show
Tor.com
Reddit
The Quill To Live
Fantasy-Faction
Huntress of Diverse Books
The Illustrated Page

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Book Review: Science Fiction: Lightless by C.A. Higgins

lightless cover

The deeply moving human drama of Gravity meets the nail-biting suspense of Alien in this riveting science fiction debut. With bold speculation informed by a degree in astrophysics, C. A. Higgins spins an unforgettable “locked spaceship” mystery guaranteed to catapult readers beyond their expectations—and into brilliantly thrilling new territory.

Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.

While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner—the enigmatic Ivan—may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.

As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Title: Lightless
Author: C.A. Higgins
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey Spectra
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Format: eARC from NetGalley
Length: 239 pages
ISBN-10: 0553394428
ISBN-13: 9780553394429

Series or Standalone: Lightless #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Machine Intelligence, Dystopia, Autocracy, Betrayal, Rebellion
POV: 3rd Person Limited
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It:  Stumbled across it on NetGalley, seemed interesting.

Review:  While the book was readable and interesting with nothing else on my plate, it failed to make a strong showing in three major areas:

1. Characters:

The characters were all fairly standard science fiction archetypes in my mind–the tech nerd in love with her machine; the autocratic, sociopathic interrogator; the loyal captain lacking in agency; the wacky computer;  the wily rogue.  I didn’t particularly care for any of these characters, and while I liked the conflict between their internal motivations on paper, the characters don’t quite seem to make them 3d.  They didn’t stand out from their archetypes, or from the page.

2. Science:

The scientific principles involved, especially the use of entropy, had the potential to be very interesting.  However, the execution was lacking.  What could have been neat and exciting came across as either dull or science babble, and wasn’t as deeply exploded as I would have liked.

3. Plot:

A very standard plot, borrowing a bit from police procedurals.  There’s just not a lot of excitement here, and the plot twists are not foreshadowed in such as way as to give the reader any hope of predicting them.  We were not deep enough into any individual’s perspective to justify these sudden twists, and the author could easily have given the reader more clues without making the characters look dumb.

 

Overall, I found the book readable, but I’m glad I got an ARC instead of buying the book.  It’s not something I’d keep in my collection long-term, and while it’s quite good enough to be published, it’s nothing new or amazing.

 

Conclusion: 62/100 (Competent but uninspiring)
Premise: 6/10 (Seen it before, and better, but reasonably-handled and a unique spin)
Plot: 7/10 (Few plotholes, but been done many times before)
Setting: 6/10 (Poorly-explored, but could have been interesting with more elaboration)
Main Character: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
World-building: 7/10 (Interesting, though not thoroughly explored)
Antagonist: 7/10 (Well-constructed, don’t see nearly enough of them)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
Writing: 7/10 (Well-written in some places, poorly in others)
Themes: 5/10 (Interesting in some cases, but poorly explored and cliche)
Resolution: 5/10 (Un-creative and poorly-constructed)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely get this one from the library if it’s your kind of story.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
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Kirkus Reviews
New York Times
Tech Times
Dark Futures
RT Book Reviews
YA Books Central

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Book Review: Fantasy: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

The Dinosaur Lords Cover

A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden – and of war. Colossal planteaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meateaters like Allosaurus and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from batsized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Milán’s splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…and the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where we have vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engaged in battle. And during the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac – and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.

Title: The Dinosaur Lords
Author: Victor Milán
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: High/Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Publication Date: July 28, 2015
Format: NetGalley Excerpt
Length: 166 pages (out of 448 pages)
ISBN-10: 0765332965
ISBN-13: 9780765332967

Series or Standalone: The Dinosaur Lords #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Court Politics, History vs. Mythology
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past Tense

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It: Net Galley

Why I Read It: Knights riding dinosaurs, of course.

Review:

1. World-building: The world-building in the story largely consists of imposing 14th-century Europe on an extra-terrestrial planet with populated by dinosaurs.  Clear alternate names for European countries and various aspects of society.  Kind of an alternate history with an extra-terrestrial twist.  Not the most original, but it does have the advantage of thousands of pounds of lizard-flesh to liven things up!

2. Characters: There are three main characters in the story: Imperial Princess Melodia, referred to affectionately by her friends as “Dia”; Count Jaume, head of a Holy Order of Dinosaur Knights; and Rob, an on-the-outs dino-tamer with little to lose and a lot of money to gain.  Jaume is your standard martial hero.  Good with a sword, but a bit one-note personality-wise.  We probably could have skipped most of his sections.  Melodia wasn’t particularly intriguing, either.  A spoiled teenage girl, though apparently quite skilled in the martial arts.  Rob was a bit more interesting.  If nothing else, his stakes were a lot higher.  But again, no major swerves from your standard minstrel.  The minor characters don’t do much to make up for the lack in our protagonists.  The real star here is Dia’s younger sister, whose name I will not embarrass myself by trying to spell.  Never has an annoying little sister been so fun.

3. Story: The story itself is nothing special, either.  The standard political shenanigans.  Quite exciting, and lots of action, of course.  The book was published for a reason.  If politics and fighting s your thing, this is definitely the book for you.  Who could resist jousting on Trexes and hunting Triceratops like a common boar?

4. Writing: Is this the next Game of Thrones, but with dinos?  Not even.  But it’s quite well-written, and the prose does nothing to get in the way of a rollicking good yarn, as it were.  The characters come to life, whether or not you care for them as people.  It can’t quite overcome the conventional story elements, but it does keep the book readable and fun.

5. Extras: The book uses chapter-starters, as has become popular in SFF novels lately.  In this cases, excerpts from two books about the world of the story, Paradise.  They come with beautiful ink drawings.  Definitely something I enjoyed, as insubstantial as they may be in comparison to the rest of the book.

 

Please keep in mind I am reviewing an excerpt consisting of only a third of the full book.  But I think that after 166 pages, it’s still a pretty accurate analysis.

Conclusion: 57/100 (Readable but average)
Premise: 5/10 (Dinos are the only saving grace)
Plot: 5/10 (Interesting, but predictable)
Setting: 5/10 (Score another for the dinos)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Well-written, but limited in depth)
Romance Subplot: 6/10 (Well-drawn, but predictable)
World-building: 5/10 (Pedestrian, if well-detailed)
Supporting Characters: 5/10 (Same as for main)
Writing: 8/10 (Skilled if not brilliant)
Themes: 4/10 (Lightly touched-on, insufficiently explored)
Resolution: 7/10 (For a cliffhanger.  If the true ending is half as good?  It’ll be fun.)

Buy Or Borrow:  Buy if you love military fantasy and giant dinosaurs.  Maybe borrow if that’s not your cup of tea but you still want to give the book a shot.

An Interview With Victor Milan on Suspension of Disbelief

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Publishers Weekly
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The Bibliosanctum
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Book Review: Fantasy: The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan

thedarkdefilescover

Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.

Title: The Dark Defiles
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Spectra
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Format: Netgalley DRC
Length: 692 pages
ISBN-10: 0575077948
ISBN-13: 9780345493101

Series or Standalone: A Land Fit for Heroes #3

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: The Creation of a Myth, What is a Hero?
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: I’d heard a lot about Richard K. Morgan’s foray into the fantasy genre, how ground-breaking it was. There was a lot of hype, and I’d never read any of his
science fiction books before. Sounded over-hyped, so I read other things instead. Then Nick managed to score an ARC of the third book in the series. I figured I might as well give it a shot, and it was outside my normal reading, so why not?

Review:

There’s a lot of talk about Richard Morgan breaking new ground in the fantasy genre with this series. First, to get things straight, this series is the bastard child of sword and sorcery and science fantasy, with the Grimdark aesthetic so popular in fantasy right now being the icing on the cake. In that sense, it’s not even part of the high or epic fantasy genres. Now that we have that out of the way, the book on its actual merits.

1. World-building: This is one of the major points of fantasy or speculative fiction in general. Morgan shows himself to be a very competent world-builder in this book. Although he makes use of a lot of subverted cliches, or even cliches played straight, there aren’t any major wholes in the world-building. What he does best is history and the other-world part of the setting. Quite interesting, lots of cool takes on older fantasy staples. The main world of the story, though, doesn’t fare so well. There’s an Empire, a “League of Free Cities”, and some barbarians in the form of “steppe nomads”, but with the steppe replaced by the Great Plains of middle America. Nothing new or even particularly interesting here. Although, he has improved a great deal on the previous novels.

2. Characters: The characters have much improved in this book. They are more developed, and make more interesting decisions. Ringil in particular develops his anti-hero personality, much more. Especially vis-a-vis his family. And yet without any of the over-indulgence that was present in the last book. Further, he comes more into his powers, and Morgan shows more of the process.

Archeth, too gets a boost in ability, and her relationship to the absent Kiriath and the Helmsmen they left behind is greatly expanded upon.

Egar Dragonbane also receives much more development. A good thing considering he was the weakest character in the previous two books.

3. Story: The threads of the story are much better balanced than in the preivious two books. A great deal of info-dumping occurs, as Morgan attempts to set up for the climax and resolution of the story. A climax that could have been very interesting if handled better, but here fell rather flat and felt rushed. There were several interesting scenes, and the book recovers incredibly well from the second-book-slump of The Cold Commands. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the story is perhaps the best part of the entire trilogy.

In the end, as much as it does to counteract the weaknesses of the rest of the trilogy, it can’t quite manage to bring the trilogy from your average mid-list fantasy series to the heights promised by the initial hype leading up to the release of The Steel Remains.

Conclusion: 69/100 (Readable but not the brilliance it’s made out to be)
Premise: 6/10 (Meant to be ground-breaking, isn’t)
Plot: 8/10 (Coherent and interesting)
Setting: 6/10 (Fairly standard fantasy cliches)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Standard tropes, well executed)
World-building 8/10 (Some very interesting points but not brilliant)
Magic system 7/10 (Fairly standard)
Supporting Characters: 4/10 (Very cliche)
Writing: 4/5 (More than competent, not brilliant)
Voice: 5/5 (Very strong voice, easy to distinguish between characters)
Themes: 7/10 (Good, poorly expressed)
Resolution: 6/10 (Predictable and boring)

Buy Or Borrow: Worth buying if this review intrigues you.

Similar Books:
The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
The Corean Chronicles by L. E. Modesitt
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
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Book Review: Adult Science Fiction: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's Kin Cover

Aliens have landed in New York. After several months of no explanations, they finally reveal the reason for their arrival. The news is not good.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is having a career breakthrough, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Her children Elizabeth and Ryan constantly bicker, agreeing only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Her youngest, Noah, is addicted to a drug that keeps temporarily changing his identity. The Jenner family could not be further apart. But between the four of them, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Title: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Near-Future Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Format: Digital Review Copy via NetGalley
Length: 115 pages
ISBN-10: 1616961759
ISBN-13: 9781616961756

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Family, Panspermia
POV: Multiple Third Person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It: Nick got a DRC from NetGalley which I was happy to review, since I’ve not had the chance to tackle this author before.

Review:

Yesterday’s Kin is a story of alien contact. Unlike many, it is not a war story, or about alien technology. I find that incredibly refreshing. I wish there was more near-future SF out there like this. It’s much more about the characters’ personal issue: for example, the fragmenting family to which both narrators belong. There was also some nice stuff about how people frame extraordinary events. The alien contact, in particular. Kress generally writes things that are closer to soft science fiction, and this book is no exception.

Something else I really enjoyed was the aliens. They had a very interesting focus in terms of what they valued. It was both understandable to humans and yet very few humans really share the values themselves. Instead of being ravenous world-conquering insects, these aliens were both human and inhuman in a way that involved positive values and yet creates a sense of discomfort in the reader. They’re sort of the “uncanny valley” of human values as opposed to appearance.

The book itself is fairly short, being more of a novella, so there’s not as much to analyse without getting into major spoilers. Suffice it to say the book had a nice twist ending that, although I saw it coming before it actually happened, wasn’t completely obvious from the beginning of the book, and did not involve any major plot-holes or deus ex machina. I was slightly annoyed at how it affected the stakes for the human characters, but overall I was okay with it. And I think most other readers would be, too.

Definitely pick this up if you enjoy soft science fiction. Also, if you mainly read short stories, or just like reading them at all, this book is a bit reminiscent of one, in a good way.

Conclusion: 81/100 (Overall, a great book)
Premise: 9/10 (Been done, but a nice variant)
Plot: 9/10 (No plots holes, nice if not uncommon twist)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-depicted, but so common it’s hard to be unique)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Two everyday people with believable motivations)
Aliens 9/10 (Not unique, but quite interesting)
Science: 7/10 (Well-founded, if slight)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Thinly sketched, but well done)
Writing: 8/10 (As good as you’d expect from this author)
Themes: 7/10 (Appropriate but not incredibly engaging)
Resolution: 8/10 (Interesting but could have been better)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth owning a copy.

Similar Books:
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Contact by Carl Sagan

Other Reviews:
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Publishers Weekly
John’s Notes
SFFWorld
Nerds in Babeland
Armed and Dangerous
Read What I Like

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Book Review: Science Fiction: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

watts cover art

It’s the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.
Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.
Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids.”
Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

Title: Echopraxia
Author: Peter Watts
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor [Forge]
Publication Date: August 26, 2014
Format: NetGalley DRC
Length: 299 pages
ISBN-10: 076532802X
ISBN-13: 9780765328021

Series or Standalone: Companion Novel (Blindsight)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Consciousness, Free Will, Transhumanism
POV: 3rd person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: I’ve always been a fan of Peter Watts’s fiction. So I was very happy when Nick told me he’d gotten approved for this book on NetGalley.

Cover Notes: This cover is not very emblematic of the content of the book. It’s not bad, but I think a less generic sci-fi cover might have been better.

Review:

This is a hard review in some ways. Much like Blindsight, Echopraxia is the quintessential science fiction of ideas. They’re there, they’re big, and they’re fascinating, whether you agree with Watts’s conclusions or not. Watts explores free will and consciousness from a very scientific and logical perspective. On top of the idea of digital reality. And his idea of vampires is one of my favorite from a sci-fi perspective. Well-done hard sci-fi is incredibly difficult to find, and from the concepts and themes side of things Peter Watts is one of the few authors who always delivers.

My major issue with the story was the story itself. Watts spends so much time on the ideas that the story gets less attention that it deserves. The reader is left to fill in many gaps, and the concept of determinism and the layers upon layers of external control over what would normally be seen as acts of free will can make the plot very hard to follow. I think the basis of the plot is sound, but the execution could use a bit more work.

As far as the characters go, I loved them. Watts manages to have many characters with very unconventional motivations and beliefs that are at the same time utterly believable and relatable, even if most of them aren’t very likable. Valerie the vampire in particular was one of my favorite characters, and Watts managed to give enough exposition of his vampire concept to make her consistent in all the right ways, and unpredictable in the same.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but it may not be something the casual science fiction fan would be interested in.

Conclusion: 79/100 (Good, but not the best story-telling in the world)
Premise: 7/10 (If it was more clear, I might have given it more points)
Plot: 5/10 (Not the most coherent, was back-seated to the ideas/themes)
Setting: 9/10 (Great)
Main Character: 9/10 (Not the most likable, but well-crafted and interesting)
World-building 8/10 (Pretty good, and very interesting)
Science 9/10 (Very well-researched. That appendix was… frightening?)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Not bad)
Writing: 6/10 (Not awful, but not brilliant)
Themes: 9/10 (Great themes, well-executed)
Resolution: 10/10 (Loved it)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow, unless you’re really into the science fiction of ideas.

Similar Books:
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The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear
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Book Review: Horror Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison was the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties, and spends most of his time popping pills and not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by unreadable messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. Martin never takes off his sunglasses. Never.

No one believes the extent of their horrific tales, not until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these seemingly-insane outcasts form a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within—and which are lurking in plain sight.

Title: We Are All Completely Fine

Author: Daryl Gregory

Category: Adult Fiction

Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Publication Date: August 12, 2014

Format: NetGalley Digital Review Copy

Length: 112 pages

ISBN-10: 1616961716

ISBN-13: 9781616961718

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:

N/A

Themes: Trauma

POV: Multiple Perspectives, Blended

Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: Daryl Gregory, writer of beautifully bizarre fiction such as Afterparty and Pandemonium is a writer I have long followed but never read. I’d only heard good things, and I always liked his premises, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. An ARC from NetGalley seemed like just the impetus I was lacking, and I’m very grateful to Nick for providing it.

Review:

I don’t often read horror, but Gregory is an eclectic writer, so I figured I’d take the chance this time. I don’t regret it. Gregory has a strong command of his characters, something speculative fiction has oft been accused of lacking. The horror elements of the story were more like seeds or remnants, rarely seen in the flesh–even in psychological horror terms-but I think that’s part of what makes the idea of the story so intriguing, and it lets Gregory make good use of his characterization skills in a way pure horror doesn’t always allow.

The therapeutic setting may not be the most original, but it managed to remain quite active despite the obvious sedentary nature of such sessions.

Harrison plays the sort of mentor character by way of providing a great deal of elegantly inserted exposition, background, and validation to the other characters. I thought of him as the main character, despite the shifting perspectives, and I think he did a good job anchoring the narrative and the dynamics between the other characters.

Jan, as she likes to be known, is the therapist who creates the inciting incident of the story, and Gregory’s light touch in imparting the reasons for the group’s existence is a nice change from the heavy-handed foreshadowing one often comes across in pulp horror. The same goes for the unraveling of the web of history that connects the characters, history they themselves ma be unaware of. You’d think a story that deals so much with the past would drag, but it doesn’t, and the tantalizing hints of back-story definitely left me wanting more about these characters. It felt like I only got a snapshot of the characters’ lives, and that their stories existed long before that snapshot and will keep going long after. And yet the snapshot itself was still very satisfying. That’s something I consider a mark of a superior story–there are loose ends and secrets and histories the reader is unaware of, but it adds to rather than detracts from the story.

Also, +1 for using augmented reality in a horror story.

It’s safe to say I’ll be picking up a few other Daryl Gregory books after reading this, and I urge everyone else to do the same.

I think anyone who reads speculative or literary fiction would enjoy this book, no matter what they usually read.

Conclusion: 87/100 (An 87 is actually a really high rating, coming from me.)

Premise: 9/10 (Fresh and engaging)

Plot: 9/10 (Compact, but well-constructed)

Setting: 8/10 (Strongly evoked)

Main Character: 10/10 (Citing Harrison, lovely aged boy wonder)

World-building 9/10 (No info-dumping, great details)

Horror Elements 6/10 (Not all that much horror, even psychologically)

Supporting Characters: 10/10 (Well-crafted)

Writing: 8/10 (Well-written)

Themes: 8/10 (Trauma and related themes lovingly conveyed)

Resolution: 9/10 (Made sense, left you thinking)

Buy Or Borrow: Totally buy.

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