Book review of All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. There are no spoilers in this review.
This cover captured my attention quite a while ago, but frankly, I wasn’t that enthused about reading a novella. I thought it would get lost in the space between a short story and novel and wind up being unsatisfying. Then I saw it had won the Hugo award for best novella this past year, and decided to take a chance on both it and Binti. But even though Binti disappointed, I’m glad to say that All Systems Red more than met my expectations and has made me a fan of the novella format.
All Systems Red is told from the point-of-view of a security cyborg that has been hired to protect a scientific expedition that is exploring part of a new planet. The story begins with a bang by dropping the reader immediately into a field expedition that goes horribly awry. The cyborg, which we learn has at some point in the past hacked its governor module so that it no longer has to obey commands, nonetheless chooses to do its job and saves one of the research team members, even though the cyborg itself is badly injured in the process. It manages to get both of them, as well as the rest of the team, back to the expedition base, where they recuperate with help from advanced medical technology.
The cyborg, which has nicknamed itself “Murderbot,” due to an unexplained incident that happened in its past, discovers the base’s main computer provided the team with a map that for some reason had critical information redacted. After another incident involving faulty data, Murderbot and the rest of the scientific team begin to wonder whether someone or something is trying to sabotage their expedition. The rest of the story details their efforts to find out if this is the case, and if so, who or what is behind it.
After reading this book I wondered if I’ve got a thing for first-person point-of-view stories in which the narrator and hero have disgruntled robot/human hybrids, because the story was in very reminiscent of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, another a book I really enjoyed. In fact, a promotional blurb from Ms. Leckie appears on the cover of All Systems Red. I say this because when I break apart the various aspects of this story I feel like I should only give it four stars. The writing was good but not exceptional, the plot was nothing new, and there was nothing ground-breaking about the science or technology involved.
Nonetheless, this wound up being one of those “greater than the sum of its parts” books for me. I enjoyed the wry narrative perspective of the Murderbot, particularly its struggles to suppress its human side when dealing with the research team it was hired to protect. I thought the writing and dialog were strong overall if not top-notch, and I thought the narrator, Kevin R. Free, did a solid job as well. I also eventually realized what I’m really a sucker for isn’t cyborg first-person narratives but noir mysteries. You would think this would have been obvious to me since my publishing imprint’s name is Tech Noir Press, but it took me a bit to realize that’s what this book really was — a noir mystery that happens to take place on a different planet in the future.
I’ll also say that, unlike Binti, All Systems Red definitely stood on its own and was appropriately marketed as a stand-alone novella (it was also published by Tor). However, I find it annoying that the books are priced such that, if you were to pay full price for all four novellas in the series, each of which is only 160 pages, it would cost you $35. Umm, no thanks. Instead, I chose to rent an audiobook copy from my local library through the RBdigital app, and it worked perfectly. But regardless of whether you’re as price sensitive as I am or not, I highly recommend this book.
Review of Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
There are no spoilers in this review.
I've had this book in my shelf for at least two years before finally getting around to reading it. To be honest, the cover of this book put me off. While the pink title certainly stands out, it’s discordant with the rest of the design, which is, frankly, a somewhat generic space opera cover. So every time I looked at it, I’d think, "Meh."
But then I read about a SyFy show called The Expanse based on Leviathan Wakes that had been canceled and subsequently picked up by Amazon. Also, although I'd never heard of James S. A. Corey before, the cover had a complimentary blurb on it from George R. R. Martin. I was curious how someone I’d never heard of had gotten such a big-name recommendation.
So I looked up the author and discovered it’s actually a pen name. The real authors are Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter of whom is a former assistant of...George R. R. Martin. Ahhhhh...
All that aside, I really liked this book. It's not, as NPR put it, "the science fiction equivalent of ‘A Song of Fire and Ice,’" but nonetheless it's very good. It switches points of view each chapter between two primary characters - Jim Holden, the executive officer (XO) of the ice-hauling space ship Canterbury, and Joe Miller, a detective working for a private security firm on Ceres Station. Ceres is a spaceport and the destination of the Canterbury when it receives a distress call from a ship out in the middle of nowhere. The Canterbury is the only ship remotely in the vicinity, and Holden, going against his commanding officer’s order, has the Canterbury respond to the call. What they find, and the events that follow, lead Earth, the human military colony on Mars, and humans living in the asteroid belt (known as "Belters") to the brink of war. But then, a much bigger problem soon appears.
This book was solid across the board on plot, character development, world-building, technological concepts, and writing quality. Plot-wise it’s a neo-noir with an unexpectedly dark turn halfway through the book, and Miller was a very effectively done antihero. It was a good page-turner too, with medium-length chapters that always had a twist, interesting question, or small revelation at the end of each one that made you want to keep reading. The ending was satisfying while clearly leaving lots of room for future stories. In fact, it has become a long-running series, with 8 books to date and book 9 currently in development.
I’ve started watching The Expanse, and so far it’s been a solid adaptation, although I’m only four episodes in so far. There are a few characters that didn’t appear in Leviathan Wakes, but overall it's faithful to the book and the differences are working for me so far. Overall it is definitely a 5-star read. While I think NPR’s assessment was a considerable exaggeration, but I would agree with Mr. Martin’s opinion that Leviathan Wakes is "a really kickass space opera."
Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
There are no spoilers in this review.
I'd heard of Neil Gaiman before but had never read anything by him before. What I'd heard was fairly limited; he did something along the lines of dark fantasy, and the people I had talked to about him seemed to either love him or not really care for him. I also knew that he'd recently been on the TV show Big Bang Theory, which elevated my expectations for this book a bit since that show generally gets pretty big-name nerds, er, guest stars. But for the most part I went into listening to the Audible version of this book largely not knowing what to expect.
What I got was one of the best books I've ever read.
The writing in this book was simply fantastic. The bar for the kind of writing I admire had previously come from people like Hugh Howey (Wool) and Justin Cronin (The Passage). Now, however, another tier has been revealed, courtesy of Mr. Gaiman.
The plot, while not the page-turner that another recent favorite of mine (Mistborn) was, was still very engaging. A mysterious character named Shadow gets out of prison after three years, only to find the life he expected to resume with his wife on the outside completely turned upside down. He falls in with a strange man named Wednesday, who seems to know as much or more about Shadow as Shadow knows about himself. Shadow goes on a series of adventures with Wednesday, and encounters a number of strange and interesting characters.
Gaiman excels at character development. Several of the ones in this book appeared in vignettes that were only tangentially related to the main story, but which did a wonderful job of establishing the overall tone of the book. In fact, a few of the vignettes had some of the most compelling, memorable writing in the book. I'll definitely be referring back to American Gods when I tackle writing my first short story (which I plan on doing soon). Within two or three pages I found myself caring deeply about the characters and what was going to happen to them next. The pacing was just right, unhurried but never too slow.
What I found most amazing about this book was how deftly Mr. Gaiman captured the essence of the things that go into making up the miasmic concoction that is America. The breadth and depth of the knowledge he demonstrated regarding all things "Americana," from its roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere to its idyllic small towns with a much darker history than its inhabitants care to acknowledge, were profound and moving. It's all the more impressive given he's a British national who'd been living in the U.S. only a few years before American Gods was published in 2001. Apparently, Mr. Gaiman took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist. He started out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, dove head-first into graphic novels. He authored the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so apparently there are not too genre fiction awards left for him to win at this point.
I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for what I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, however. A word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more apt. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up on the book. Fortunately, I persevered, and that particular scene turned out to be by far the weirdest one. It also came to make more sense later on once some additional context had been added.
The only negative I have to mention, and it is a mild one, was with the ending, which for me was a bit of a letdown. For some reason, I expected a slam-bam big action finale, but that turned out not to be the case. But it was still a satisfying conclusion, and far better than most books I've read with writing this good.
I learned after the fact that American Gods, which came out in 2001, won not only the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards, but also the Locus award for fantasy and the Bram Stoker award for horror. This cross-genre acclaim reflects what I felt while listening to it, namely that it was a textbook example of why the term "speculative fiction" was developed. It's a book that goes outside the bounds of reality but doesn't fit cleanly into any of the standard genres for books of that type. So it makes perfect sense that it won a whole mess of different awards. It should have been considered for whatever the big award for historical fiction is, if it wasn't, because several of the vignettes had fascinating and what seemed to me to be accurate portrayals of life at various points in history, from the dawn of agriculture to modern-day America.
Another big part of what made this book so enjoyable was the spectacular narration by George Guidall. I have only two other audiobooks to compare it against, but even from this tiny sample size I'd have no trouble believing it—his work blew the other two away. It was like being thrown without warning into a show on Broadway when all you'd heard up until that moment were high school musicals. After I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next week on my morning commute, and I realized how much I'd looked forward to hearing the next quarter-chapter each time I got in the car.
When I read up about him afterward, I learned Mr. Guidall is considered by some to be the king of audiobooks, having narrated over 1,300 of them! I went ahead and ordered Mr. Guidall's version of Don Quixote for my dad's birthday; we'll see if he thinks as much of Mr. Guidall's work as I did.
I'll definitely be reading some more of Mr. Gaiman's novels in the future, with Neverwhere sounding the most interesting at the moment. In the meantime, I highly recommend this story.
Book review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
There are no spoilers in this review.
I had heard a great deal about Annihilation and was very curious to read it. In some ways, the book really delivered. But in others, it fell disappointingly short, particularly the audiobook version. In the end, it wound up being a 4 because of the writing quality. However, when it was over I felt a bit disappointed, that it had the bones to be a 5-star story but somehow missed the mark.
To start with the positive, I thought that overall the writing in this book was very high. I really enjoyed Mr. VanderMeer's description of settings, and the use of introspection on the part of the main character, the biologist. I found the overall concept was really interesting as well. This is a first-contact story, in which the four main characters, all women, were known only as "the biologist," "the psychologist," "the archeologist," and "the surveyor," are sent to investigate a place called "Area X," which only the U.S. government knows about and that has been exhibiting paranormal phenomena for many years.
The current four-woman team is the twelfth expedition into Area X (which I thought was a rather lame play off of Area 51) to explore the goings-on there. The previous expeditions, by and large, have all met a variety of untimely demises, whether group suicide, killing each other, or mysteriously returning to the outside world as shells of their former selves before dying of cancer a few months later. To be honest I found the basic premise of the book ridiculous, namely that the government would choose to send in only tiny teams of people into an area they knew might be harboring some form of extraterrestrial life. But overall, I thought the book did an excellent job setting the scene and getting the reader curious about what was happening inside Area X, and what would happen to this particular expedition.
However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and unfortunately, this turned out to be a big part of what didn't work for me. I'm still new to audiobooks, having only listened to Wil Wheaton's narration of Ready Player One before this one. I really enjoyed the audio version of RPO, and so was eagerly anticipating Carolyn McCormick's reading of Annihilation. She had narrated the Hunger Games series, and so had great credentials. But whether it was the sound of her voice or the way she read the story, by the time I was halfway through the book I found the narration really getting on my nerves.
I was also bothered by the frequent interruption of the plot, particularly in the second half, with flashbacks or long introspective asides. Initially, I found the flashbacks non-intrusive and providing helpful context for how the main character got herself involved in the expedition. But over time they provided less and less useful information and just got in the way of the story. I would have skimmed over them had I been reading. Similarly, the main character engaged in near-continuous introspection. At first it was interesting, but later on, when things started happening it seemed an unrealistic way to react and also slowed things down.
Finally, I found the climax to be a bit, well, anticlimactic. It was still cool and brought to mind a couple of my favorite books, Contact and Roadside Picnic. But the subtle ending of Contact didn't deliver the goods for a lot of people (although it did for me) but I had a similar reaction to the ending of this book.
I'm probably being a bit harsh, but it's because my gut tells me this book had the potential to be awesome, but somehow didn't hit the home run I was looking for. But it was very interesting and engaging story overall, and for much of the book, the writing was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie because I have a feeling it may be one of those relatively rare cases where the movie turns out better than the book.
So I saw the movie, and suffice it to say that my hopes that it would be better than the book were not unmet. While the book lost its way in the second half, the movie lost its way even earlier. For one, it added a bunch of action scenes that were out-of-place with the story's essence as a cerebral thriller. It took out some of the stuff I found intriguing about the psychologist's character, and most critically, it altered the ending in a way that actually made it even more anticlimactic than in the book. So while I recommend the book, I'd pass on the movie, which I'd only give 2 out of 5 stars.
Book review of Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
This review does not contain any spoilers.
One of the podcasts I listen to is called "Writing Excuses." It's a weekly podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson and a rotating group of other authors who give writing advice on a variety of different topics. The podcasts are only 15-20 minutes long, and they are excellent: short, entertaining, and packed full of super-useful information about writing fiction.
Sanderson writes epic fantasy, which isn't a genre I'm normally that interested in, but over this past Christmas, I saw he had written a book called Oathbringer, which Amazon dubbed the most "unputdownable" book of 2017. Well, this piqued my interest, because what author doesn't want readers to be unable to put their book down, right?
So I went to Amazon and discovered Oathbringer is priced at $16.99. For the e-book. Riiiiight.
So, rather than fork over $17 to Macmillan (sorry, Brandon), I went to my local library and was pleased to find they still have books you can borrow and read for free! Not surprisingly, Oathbringer was not available, nor were either of the previous two books in the series. However, I did find one book, called Mistborn, which he wrote in 2010. So I checked it out and read it while I was on vacation.
Damn, it was good.
If Oathbringer is more unputdownable than this book, I may avoid it, because I don't think I can handle another string of sleepless nights like I went through with Mistborn. This book kept me reading until the wee hours of the morning for about five straight nights. I don't know yet what it was that turned me into the literary equivalent of a heroin addict, but I'm going to spend some time analyzing this book to figure it out. I'm going to re-read the first fifty or so pages, break down the plot and character development in each chapter, and study the transitions between chapters because I have got to put some of what made this book so good into my next book!
I will say I was a little bit disappointed in the ending. I won't give any spoilers, but when I finished it at 12:30 a.m. last night, my initial reaction was "Yeeessss!!!!!" But after I woke the next morning and reflected on the ending, I realized there were a few elements added at the end that didn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Partly this is because Sanderson did such a good job establishing the rules for how allomancy and feruchemy work (these are superpowers granted through ingestion or possession of metals) as well as the physical characteristics of two types of people (terrismen and steel inquisitors). Because of this, it was pretty clear those rules got violated in a couple of big ways at the end.
Nonetheless, the ending was still very satisfying, and the ride up to that point was fantastic. What I found notable about this book for me was that Sanderson's writing to me has no weaknesses. He does an outstanding job at world-building, character development, action, dialog, and setting. There were no dead spots where I got bored even though it was 650 pages long. It was all combined in a way that the book stood by itself even though it's the first book in a trilogy. In addition to rarely reading epic fantasy anymore, I also very rarely read books over 500 pages. Mistborn blew past both of these hangups like they didn't exist. It will almost certainly do the same with another hangup of mine, namely, reading beyond the first book in a series.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Science fiction writer