And that's it for October! Let me tell you, I had better months. I was sick a lot, including having caught a cold twice, and finding myself down with a mysterious allergy to something I ate. 0/5, cannot recommend. But, fortunately, I still found the time to read a couple of books, so here you go:
Reading list length: 404 (yes, really)
Four Ways to Forgiveness
Four Ways to Forgiveness is part of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, and gives us a bit of a backstory on the Hainish themselves, how the Ekumen was founded, and how worlds may come to join the Ekumen. The story is told in four parts, a character apiece. The characters do interact, but they form their own narratives. From the perspective of a slave, a military slave owner, an envoy, and a historian, we gain a perspective on the world of Werel, and the rebellion of the slaves against their owners. I was very impressed with the discussion of slavery, dependence, culture, misogyny, and revolution from the different perspectives. It's not easy reading though – Le Guin doesn't shy away from depicting all the horrible parts of oppression and slavery. Despite that, the stories were touching and hopeful and noticeably written to work well together.
Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Shuttle and Her Crew
Bringing Columbia Home is the story of the aftermath of the break-up of the Columbia shuttle, told by Michael D. Leinbach who was a launch manager at NASA and bore responsibility during the collection of Columbia and the ensuing review. I didn't really like the book – the author gave me the feeling that the book was more written for the people involved in the clean-up missions, both volunteers and professionals, than for an interested outsider like me. Some chapters feel more like a long list of names and their roles, to include everybody who did important work at the time, which was certainly important to those people, but at the same time a bit tedious. A bit of stylistic editing would have helped a lot here. I also felt that quite some things I'd be interested in (e.g. the concrete organizational consequences to change NASA feedback culture) were glossed over way too much.
But since Mr Leinbach dropped a lot of tiny interesting pieces of information and stories, and the subject matter is obviously fascinating, and I'm a nerd for both space and logistics, I still got some good moments out of it. If you're similarly inclined, then I'd recommend the book, but otherwise you'll probably come to the conclusion that knowledge of and dedication to the subject does not replace professional editing advice.
Provenance by Ann Leckie is set in the Ancillary universe, but doesn't have much to do with the Radch or any of the known characters. Instead, it's a pleasant little space-opera adventure. I enjoyed it a lot, even if it didn't have the same quality as the Ancillary trilogy – it clearly doesn't aim to be the same kind of book, and that worked for me. The protagonist is young, sometimes clever, but noticeably inexperienced and often wrong. There are a couple of inconsistencies in her character, I'd say (both painfully insecure, and sufficiently sure of herself to pull off big plots of her own?), but having the inner view on a clever, but anxious person was pretty convincing, all things considered. As usual for Leckie, relationships are not really fleshed out (maybe because, again, the protagonist is somewhat clueless, although we do get a very low-key romance), so it falls to the reader to notice interactions and draw conclusions. The worldbuilding was very good, as to be expected, and I'd have loved to see more of it, especially of the different human and non-human cultures.
So, if you like scifi adventures with a believable cast, great worldbuilding, and no Chosen One Saving The World, Provenance should fit the bill. Sadly, I have now read everything there is to read from Ann Leckie, and I'll have to wait for her next book to come out. Thankfully this isn't a long wait: Her first Fantasy novel will come out in February next year.
Mind of My Mind
I liked Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler – to me it was the most interesting part of the Patternmaster series so far. It explores how, within our society as it exists today, the Patternist community came to exist, and soon dominated life everywhere. It's exactly the bit of backstory I was missing. That said, I didn't feel particularly attached to any of the characters. I think this was due to the rushed feeling – by skipping large intervals of time, we get told about important character and group developments, instead of being shown, which is unfortunate: with more space and exploration, this would have made an outstanding book.
Every Heart a Doorway
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is a nice little fantasy tale of the place where children go after going through a Door to Another Place (Fairylands, for example), and then coming back. It's short, and sweet, and sad, and gruesome. It's about real children, not a list of characters from other books, either. The gruesome part is the murder mystery half of the book, but that's really only window dressing for the exploration of the characters and worlds. It's a bit short, and I'd have liked to see more exploration of both the children and their worlds – but I guess that's what the sequel is there for.
I found 11/22/63 a pretty good time travel story (Would you give five years of your life to stop the JFK assassination, given the chance?). Stephen King, as always, excells at the depiction of real, gritty human life with all its ups and downs. I really think he can write about anything, natural or supernatural, as long as it has at least a tenuous connection to Maine. The story had internal consistency, a bit of character development (with a not all that clever protagonist, which I appreciated – not all protagonists need to be the cleverererest), and a pretty satisfying conclusion. Readers of It will appreciate the tie-ins, and I caught whiffs of the Dark Tower aesthetic and resonating themes. The quality of writing is, as always with King, good: believable characters, mostly even with more than one dimension, tight writing, the usual brilliant use of foreshadowing and -telling.
At the same time, there are definitely things that weren't good: First off, this is a slow book. It's not really about the Kennedy assassination, or about time travel, it's mostly about the late 50s in America, in a very yearning, positive tint. This did work for me, because I know little about the 50s in the US, and I can deal with slow books as long as they are written well. But the rose-colored glasses in combination with a very pro-50s protagonist were a bit weird. About at the time when I wanted to say "bullshit, the 50s in the US must have sucked!", King starts to talk about racism for a bit – only to mostly abandon the topic afterwards. It's sometimes there on the sidelines, but only when King wants to highlight that not quite everything was good back then.
Also, if you like Alternative History fiction: this is not a book for you, there is no exploration of the actual consequences of different ways history might take.
Blood Song is the start of the Raven's Shadow series by Anthony Ryan. It was a bit hard to make up my mind about this book – it changed a lot over the course of the story.
We start off with a young protagonist who is given by his family to an order of warrior monks to be trained. And while the worldbuilding (which is only hinted at at this point) is solid, we basically get a third of a book's worth of a mix of brutal Hogwarts and training sequences. This isn't bad per se, but I started to see this book as one of those guilty pleasure fantasy reads: I'm a sucker for training stories, and I know it, and that's fine.
But then our protagonist grows up, and joins the wider world, and has to contest with larger issues than just learning and fighting and dealing with the occasional attempt on his life. This part tends to skip long stretches of time, years at times, and only shows us the highlights of our protagonist's experiences in his adult life. And then, the last part of the book follows him into battle, and has him face (and eventually follow) his moral qualms. All the while the worldbuilding is growing wider and deeper. The content of this book could have easily made a trilogy in the current state of Fantasy, so I'm very happy to see this amount of storytelling. Going from a young boy in training, via a young adult struggling with the world, to an adult who stands up for his convictions is no new story by far – but Ryan presents it without making it feel stale. Part of that is that the protagonist isn't always right – he's certainly capable, and not stupid by far, but he does make mistakes, and not only ones that spell "I'm only a mistake to advance the plot".
So, yes, if you're into fantasy that makes use of known tropes without being stale or boring, you should definitely check this one out!
Laundryverse: Delirium Brief and Labyrinth Index
The Delirium Brief is yet another entry in the Laundry series by Charlie Stross, and with our first and maybe favourite POV character Bob to boot! It features a culmination of a lot of characters, concepts and plot points introduced in previous parts of the series, which is nice in general – except that the first quarter of the book is exposition/reminder of the who's who and what's what of the Laundryverse, which felt very tedious.
Apart from that, everything's great, though: People behave intelligently, but not perfectly (especially regarding interpersonal relationships. There's a marriage on the line, y'all). Same goes, somewhat, for administration and Eldritch horrors. All things considered, The Delirium Brief talks about the dangers of privatisation, which is first fun, then terrifying, and then Terrifying, capital T. The ending is at least as strong as the beginning is weak, and I'm very happy to have read this book with the next one lined up. The cliffhanger is, well, planet-sized.
The Labyrinth Index, the latest entry in Charlie Stross' Laundry Files series … escalates. When the last volume of the Laundry Files ended fairly apocalyptic, I was under the impression that Charlie was fed up with reality overtaking his books pre-publication, and escalated to a level reality isn't yet willing to follow.
The Labyrinth Index introduces Mhari as the protagonist and POV character, which I found refreshing and nice. Laundry protagonists are a bit chancy, for me – Mo was part great, part meh, and Alex was 90% annoying. Mhari is about as good as Mo, for me, and maybe a bit more evenly written (or the transition to yet-another-protagonist is less jarring than to the first non-Bob one). Bob and Mo are not part of this story, btw – we accompany Mhari on a field mission to the US, where the conflicts between the UK's new Lord and the US' new Lord are dunked out.
I enjoyed the plot, which is fast-paced and surprisingly well-explained. Maybe it's my imagination, but I think the recent Laundry books leave less to the reader's deductive reasoning and explain and show more in detail what's actually going on. Instead, the subtle clues now concern side action that will mostly become relevant in a later volume. Like the last book, a lot of characters are drawn from previous books, but it's more of a solid recurring cast, and less of a "Use ALL the characters", which we had last time.
As usually, the book is well paced (and by that I mean: escalating consistently), well-researched, clever, and plain fun. It goes deeper into gross and disgusting aspects of the Elder Management than previously, which can be a bit graphic (not that I'm complaining, just as a heads-up to other readers). It may not be the best Laundry book, but it meets all my expectations and then some.
An Unkindness of Ghosts
An Unkindness of Ghosts is so good that it seems implausible that it is Rivers Solomon's debut novel. I mean, I'm very much into generational starships as a literary setting, but this is the best usage of the genre I've encountered so far (it nearly reached a five-star rating for me). We find ourselves on a generational starship, over 200 years into the journey away from a dead planet Earth. People are organized by deck, with the upper decks being the ruling class with a Sovereign, and the lower decks being the ill-treated worker class under guard. But instead of being as simplistic and YA-y as this sounds, An Unkindness of Ghosts goes deeper.
Each deck has its own variations in language, and its own variation in culture and upbringing. It starts at words, it ends at default pronouns and religous views. Decks are also race-coded, with the ruling class being white and the lower decks being dark-skinned. The acts of both purposeful and casual violence were so believable that they were very disturbing, and made the various reactions of the main cast very believable. The main cast features a guy with strong gender dysphoria, a woman with heavy psychoses, and the protagonist who is a woman (probably enby, though) on the autism spectrum. All characters experience terrible violence over the course of their lives, and seeing them deal with it was realistic and heart-wrenching. The titular ghosts of this book will haunt me for some time.
The Artificial Condition is the second volume of Martha Wells' Murderbot series, and it's definitely better than the first one. I see why people love Murderbot, now – they, and their interaction with both humans and other bots, are bittersweet and relatable. In this second volume, Murderbot has to figure out what to do with their freedom, and they use it well – to examine their past, and work on ways to live their future. I enjoyed that while the protagonist is snarky, the snarkiness isn't overdone at all, and leaves spaces for cleverness, and vulnerability, and all kinds of connections to other people.
I like Iain Banks and his Culture series very much, but Matter was a let-down for me. It's an okay book, and that's really quite disappointing copared to the potential of both the series and its own contents.
Matter shows us a lot of things I'm really interested in: We get to see somebody who is still in training to be a Special Circumstances agent, and she comes from a fairly archaic non-Culture world, to boot! This gives us a nice comment on the Culture from her eyes, and at least a bit of character development. This was definitely the good part.
But we get many more POV characters, and most of them weren't all that interesting. Her two brothers, princes in said archaic world, drag the plot instead of carrying it (although those two definitely get most of the character development).
On the scifi side of things, again, we are introduced to many really cool things: Several different non-humanoid alien species with very alien needs and views and communication tactics. Different kinds of world, like the Nestworld and the Shellworlds. These are the things Banks is really, really good at. But sadly we spend about 10% of the book exploring these concepts, 80% with set-up maneuvering getting all characters to the point of readiness, and then 10% of an action-packed, sudden climax and resolution. With an appropriate amount of Meta, one character notes towards the end that war is "a lot of waiting and then a few short moments of uninhibited terror". That's Matter.
The Obelisk Gate
The Obelisk Gate is the second part of N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, and it's brilliant. It continues the heavy character building we got in the first volume. Some characters grow, some change a lot, some change just in our eyes by virtue of being seen through different eyes, for example, our protagonist, Essun, is very different when seen by her daughter. Seeing the kid grow into her own character arc was beautifully done.
All story lines are fascinating, and the pacing is fast and bound to leave you breathless. I appreciated a lot how the book wasn't coddling its readers: You're expected to keep up, think along, and remember the past. I read it in about a day or so, and I really really really want to know how the story ends – since, of course, this book ends as much with a bang! as the first one.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang is a charming (if depressing) story of virtual pets who are trained to be cute companions, but when the fad fades – after layoffs and knockoffs – it turns out you can train them up over the years to have intelligence and an understanding of the world. Yes, like children. Hilarity does not ensue, but it's a well-enough-written story that felt realistic. If anything, I'd have appreciated a little less realism – I'm already familiar with all the depressive reality of the software industry, and I'd like something more in my reading.
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar was not particularly impressive to me. It's a story set in a world where the Jewish state was founded in a part of Kenya, as proposed in the Uganda Scheme by the British at the time. It then escalates to include alternate realities in general, which is a topic I like a lot – but I felt like the book tried to be too many things at the same time, which turned into not being good at any of them. The characters were so busy with the plot that there wasn't really time for any character development. The plot wanted to hand us a lot of action, and realisticly annoying modern life, but often had to make way for lyrical-weird storytelling (which I liked, btw). The storytelling sometimes was (trying to be) very fancy (look, we can use different POVs! First person narrator, second person narrator, thir… ), but then had to take some time off in between to deal with some action in the plot. And so on, and so on – I got the feeling that there were easily two or three good books in there, but that they were combined badly. It's still an entertaining book, but it's not shaping up to stand out. I'll give bonus points for ths line, though: "You can call it quantum mechanics, you can call it Kaballah, but either way …"
Side note: I feel like the protagonist as the not-really-veiled author has been done to death. The protagonist is a Jewish-isreali pulp writer who is even named very similarly to the author, and has written a book with the same title as the author, and so on. For all the readers who need to be hit with the clue bat once or twice for their own good.
I was provided with an advance copy of this book in return for the honest review you just read.
- With The Daughter of Odren, a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, I've now finished the Earthsea Cycle. This novella is very bittersweet – predictable only in parts, only because it recalls fairytales, but still very human and very real. A good ending to my Earthsea experience.
- The Kite Maker is a short story playing on Earth, 15 years after a peaceful alien race arrived. The Dragonflies, as they were called, were greeted with violence, and now that they are somewhat integrated into society, the right mob moves against them. Heavy-handed metaphore is mixed with good characterization, leading to an intentionally painful, okay-but-not-quite-good short story.
- A hanging is a very short essay by George Orwell, describing in very matter-of-fact detail the morning of a prison hanging. It's as terrible and at the same time as common as it sounds.
Do not recommend
The Core concludes the Demon Cycle series by Peter Brett, and it was a disappointment to me. While we still get a couple of cool side characters, the main cast has grown unrelatable to me. The story often felt like a mix of fanfiction and a detailed narration of a video game: hack, slash, get your dreams, feel a bit of mandatory doubt and off you go to your heroic journey, filled with never-too-difficult enemies. The bit of relevant character development itself (Renna, mostly) seemed to have taken place between books.
Also, we get a whole new generation of kids, just for the sake of it, it seems. They take up an inordinate amount of pages (pregnancy, birth, carrying them around) for no contribution, really. I hope they're not meant to be the tie-in for a sequel series. They felt as cringe-y as the Harry Potter kids, down to the names.
In conclusion: I really liked the first book in the series, and the following books felt middling-to-good. This one didn't even reach this level. A good part of that may be that my patience with the vastly annoying and stereotyped Krasians (a vaguely muslimic hurr-durr warrior culture) never paid off, but I'll spare you the rant about that.