Monday, August 22, 2022

Dan Reviews Books, Part 9

 Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ,7,8 


The Phoenix Empress, K. Arsenault Rivera 

DNF pg 1/5xx

Like Martian Bigfoot, this book is a rare thing of wonder - the one-sentence did-not-finish. I can't speak for anything in this book but the first sentence, but I have sharpened my sense of what I like to such a narrow edge that I can make a call after a few words, and I think that's rather nice.

(I did cheat and read the rest of the opening paragraph, but it was the first sentence that did it in.)

The sentence in question:

"It is an hour into Sixth Bell on the third of Nishen."
This sentence is a content void, containing no information. I don't care if later context will make it make sense, the opening of this book is saying "I do not care enough to tell you what time of day it is, nor what time of year, and I will show my contempt for you by filling it with words that are clearly supposed to indicate time of day and time of year, but make it impossible to understand."

There could have (and should have) been a second clause appended to it: "It is an hour blah blah blah, and the clarifying details explain the first bit."

Compare to the first line of 1984:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Which not only gives us the appropriate sense-words to build a picture in our heads of what's going on, (and it just sounds good when read aloud) but the usage of "clocks were striking thirteen" promotes a feeling of unease and unheimlich. Sure it might mean 1 PM, but if it doesn't...

Ah well. Wasted more time writing this entry than I did reading the book.


Various Elric Stories, Michael Moorcock

I've been reading them in publication order and have gotten through the first four. They are certainly 60s pulp sword and sorcery, and there is a richness and vividness to the prose that I find very much welcome. But, they are also 60s pulp sword and sorcery short stories; even though there is a sequence to events, after four of the stories it feels like I have hit the sum of everything it can show me. It's the same thing, the same pattern, over and over. Felt similar with the Fafhrd and Mouser stories after a while.

Seemingly reading my mind, the fifth story does not feature Elric at all, and so was nice and refreshing. I'll likely return in the future, but it is certainly a corpus that should be read piece-meal. 


Ring of Swords, Eleanor Arneson

This book was picked out on a whim by my partner, who thought the blurb was interesting. She was correct. Setup is one of those very classic first contact stories, where the aliens are just human enough except for the parts that cause a whole lot of interesting conflict.

To whit, the hwarhath are fascist space apes with a civilization so strictly gender-split that heterosexual intercourse is considered worse than bestiality. They captured a human ship 20 years ago and one of the crew (Nicholas "the Liar") now serves as their primary translator and cultural liaison. The initial negotiations (on a out-of-the-way planet with a tiny science station and nothing much more interesting than some giant alien man-o-war jellyfish) go south, and in a refreshing change of pace...don't lead to warfare. Cool heads and talk win the day, though one of the scientists (Annah) ends up getting pulled as a human-side liaison for the new talks. The rest of the novel is set a year later on a space station, juggling between Annah and Nick's POVs and all the tangles they have to navigate. Nick in particular is very interesting with how divided his loyalties are, which get quite a bit more complex than my review style here is adequate to explain.

It put me very much in mind of Cherryh's Foreigner series, with humans trying to navigate their way through a minefield of alien expectations, problems solved with quick wits and diplomatic skill rather than weapons. The aspects regarding sexuality, while certainly of the 90s, have aged rather gracefully all things considered.

One of the highest positive ratings I can give to a book is "this has put me on the lookout for the author's other works", and Ring of Swords succeeds in spades at that.


Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

DNF pg. 93/618

It took me a while (and looking at some reviews) to realize that this book is very much a fantasy retelling of the rise of the Han Dynasty. And in that sense it is fine, well-composed enough to pass muster, but not what I was hoping for. There are too many characters and proper nouns for my taste, and the big-picture historical fantasy epic loses some luster for me if it is nearly 1:1 real history. I like the curveballs you can get from the fantastic elements. By the time I put it down, I was developing the same sort of queasy feeling that led me to stop listening to an abridged version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, when the only thing I could think of is "jesus christ that is a sickening number of civilian casualties". I am no expert in Chinese history but I know enough to know that when there's a civil war it tends to get very big and very nasty and that really doesn't engender enthusiasm for me as a reader when it's presented in the context of fiction.


Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

In progress, 61%

Fair warning, this doesn't start looking like a normal novel until 20-25 pages in or so, and things don't start happening in earnest until nearly the 50% mark. It's got that 1926 pacing - certainly likes to take its time.

The prose is often very evocative, often dipping into episodes of the author telling you precisely what is On Her Mind about life and art and meaning and all that.

Some things don't translate particularly well across time - mainly the passivity of the characters. Plot threads get dropped on the regular. Missing children get shrugged off by their parents. It's a slow book, have to be in the right mood for it. But it is consistent and I

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Devoured this one in a day and a half, it absolutely deserves the reputation for quality. There's a reason why we're talking about it 48 years later. Several reasons, in fact. The punchiness of the prose and the quick pace, the sudden and brutal violence, the increasing unease and alienation we feel alongside Mandela as he is cast further and further into the future. The constant middle finger to the American war machine. The ending. What a good, good, goodass book. Immediate top-shelf space. This review is short because the book is short and also very good and you should read it.


Making Money, Terry Pratchett

Nothing better than reading a Discworld book for the first time, and this is one of the few that has remained out of my grasp.

Remember when the TERFs tried claiming Pratchett as one of their own? What absolute dumbasses. *Making Money* features "I am going to use a golem to illustrate how people are the gender they identify as, it's all very simple" on page nine.

Anyway, it's a Moist von Lipwig book, which means that it is a great deal of spinning plates all going very fast and occasionally fitting into each other like neat little gears. Perhaps too neatly in some points, but by and large it is a satisfying framework for good jokes and barbed social commentary.


Machine, Elizabeth Bear

DNF pg. 122 / 482

The main character of Machine, one Dr. Brooklyn Jens, abandoned her wife and their eighteen-month old daughter for a ten year tour of duty in deep space. Just when I think nothing surprises me any more, this book comes out and breaks new ground in the field of "how to instantaneously evaporate, nay, sublimate any traces of sympathy I have for a character".

This is a setting where everyone uses exowombs (And she was in a relationship with another woman anyway) - you have to intend to have a child.  There's a veneer of self-awareness, but it comes off (like most of the narration) as self-centered and immature. "I'm a terrible mother," she says "I'm a very good doctor, though. And maybe it's good to concentrate on the things you excel at. It doesn't mean that I'm okay with being a terrible mother, or that we never regret the sacrifices we make to get what you want, or what you think you need."

No, from everything else in this story it seems like you are very okay with being a terrible mother, Dr. Jens, considering you abandoned the ship that you chose to build at the first opportunity. I've felt more guilt over forgetting to do the dishes!

This woman is supposedly in her forties (or thereabouts) and I literally thought she was 10-20 years younger, given the narration style.

There's an interesting idea here (mysterious ancient colony ship with mysterious things happening on it, a Star Trek style federation with loads of fun aliens, nifty bits about some methane-breathers and their environmental requirements), but at every turn it is fought by the other contents. The inexplicable replacement of "days" and "years" with "dia" and "ans" (to mean the exact same thing!). The 0-G segments are confusingly oriented (this might be a plus). There are occasional attempts at wit that are not funny.

Reading some reviews has revealed that the interesting mystery elements of the opening are not, in fact, the actual plot, and even if Jens wasn't a heel that would be more than enough reason to drop it.


The First Sister, Linden Lewis

DNF pg 74/342


"lol, lmao, what do you expect me to do, listen to it?"

I wanted to like this one, I wanted it to be a comeback after the disappointment of Machine. But it was not to be. Once again I fall to the clearest death-knell for my interest in a book: looking up reviews on Goodreads to see if there is anything corroborating my experience. It has never, ever ended up in a positive outcome.

So, basic premise: the inner solar system is split between the Icarii (Mercury and Venus, they are arguably science and enlightenment and all that), and the Gaeans (Earth and Mars, militaristic theocracy). They're at war over Ceres, both are pretty awful. There are weirdos in the asteroid belt and AI living in the outer system that will take anyone coming close to Jupiter as reason to reignite the war and just clean up shop.

We get a POV character for each faction, and early on I do appreciate how we get the each party represented without total reduction to one party's propaganda (instead, they're terrible in completely different ways). But the chapters are so short, and the switching is so constant A then B then C, it feels like I'm getting whiplash but not actually going anywhere.

One of the POV characters (Character B) is motivated by their missing partner, who has apparently defected and needs to be hunted down. The other, Character A, is basically a temple prostitute on a spaceship. The latter is an interesting concept but the constant POV switching made it so that nothing was ever built up. The former was just dull. I am, as previously indicated, a picky son of a gun when it comes to romance plots in my spec-fic and you'd best be bringing your A-game, otherwise I will just complain throughout about how much more I'd like to read about the setting's politics. No prizes for guessing which option is on display here.

The third POV is recordings of the partner in question, who Character B just fucking refuses to listen to when he gets ahold of it. He has two hours of down time before shipping out and this shit is mission relevant and I don't have the patience for this. If you actually gave a shit about this person, you wouldn't stand around twiddling your fingers. That's obvious dumbassery-to-extend-page-count and I will have none of that.

Also the conflict doesn't even make sense in the first place: one of the factions has a monopoly on force field and antigravity tech and if you mean to tell me that a faction with sole access to Clarketech like that is in a stalemate, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I've been trying to sell.


  1. Some real duds this time. Gods preserve me from bad sci-fi.

    1. Sometimes I feel like I'm witnessing a YA-ification of sci-fi, or maybe just a mainstreaming of the presentation of sci-fi books as part of baiting Marvel fans. It seems to be pretty chameleonic book-to-book, and I'm not sure whether to trust anything involving romance anymore.

    2. There's that one scene in Avatar where Uncle shouts "You never think these things though!" and it has become a running mantra for me in a lot of books. There is a certain thoughtlessness that goes into a lot of stories - and while certainly that has always been the case since Ug told Zug about the mammoth that got away, it very much feels like, in a lot of the books I have read that are duds, that the thoughtlessness is rooted in a very...tvtropes way of looking at and creating media. Here are the component parts, her are the Issues to be addressed, but there's no synthesis into coherency.