Book Reviews Done Quick

I wanted to start this year off with writing long-form book reviews, and I have gotten one under my belt already (Slow Bullets). The problem is, I read a lot faster than I can write, and I’d rather keep knocking out my to-read list than have to stop and pore over a lengthy review before moving on to the next one. I promise that if I have time, I’ll give these guys the full treatment in the future, but for now, here are the snippets that I threw up on my Goodreads page:

The Emperor’s Soul

the emperor's soulA very quick and flowing read, and one filled with a deceptively rich world (no easy feat for a book that I polished off in one sitting!) and intricate laws of magic that capture the imagination. Shai is a delightfully unreliable narrator, and I feel as beguiled and enchanted by her as I’m sure Gaotona did. A solid work of fantasy fiction.

I do have to knock off one star for the Orientalist trappings of the world. While there isn’t anything outright disrespectful in the world, I feel like exotic Orientalism as shorthand for fantasy has been done to death. I don’t feel that The Emperor’s Soul was genuine commentary or presentation of actual Asian cultures. In the post-script Q&A, the author says that his research into Asian cultures was to visit a museum in Taiwan (hmm) and do missionary work in Korea (hmmmmm). Though I read the Q&A only after reading the book, I felt like this explained a lot of the exoticism of the piece.

Goodreads Rating: 4/5 stars

Pirate Utopia

My favorite read of 2017, and my only regret is that I hadn’t read this sooner. Phenomenal world-building, good pulpy rewrites (or reimagining) of real historical events, and all the dieselpunk to last me years. Post-WWI Italy lends itself well to this sort of fantastic non-fantasy writing, and Pirate Utopia does not disappoint with its surging factions, its larger-than-life characters, and its complete disregard for what is real and what is merely possible.

If I were you, I’d skip the lengthy introduction and the character rundown at the start and just get straight to it. I’ve never read Bruce Sterling before but I stand before you now a fresh convert, completely devoted to reading every last one of his works.

Goodreads Rating: 5/5 stars

The Bear and the Nightingale

I enjoyed this beautiful fairy-tale-like story, and found the world both incredibly haunting and gorgeous. I loved the characters and never felt like any of them were over-the-top or cartoonish, though they were all incredibly distinct and had huge room-filling personalities. Vasya is a refreshing take on the tomboyish unladylike protagonist, and I loved reading about all of her hijinks.

My one gripe about the story is that the last third seems to collapse forward in one great rush; the first half to two-thirds was some excellent setting and world-building, but the stakes are only finally realized just before the great battle that ends the book. From the point when Vasya gets spirited away into the forest, the writing seems to be in a great hurry to just be done with it. (I suspect it’s because it culminates in an physical battle, which didn’t really jive with the non-physical “battling” Vasya had been doing until that point.)

Without getting too spoiler-y, the way the battle ends also felt unbelievably rushed, with characters even mentioning how it seemed to come out of nowhere. This is unfortunate because it was immediately preceded by one of the most emotional and heart-wrenching moments of the book, so for the climax to try and top itself with something out of left field was disappointing.

All that said though, I enjoyed the fantastic world and am looking forward to seeing where the sequels take these characters.

Goodreads Rating: 4/5 stars

#iHunt: Mayhem in Movieland

An extremely quick read, I managed to get through it in a morning. This is both a strength of the writing (quick, snappy, modern, easy to parse) and also, unfortunately, a bit of a hindrance (events go by too quickly to carry the weight that similar events did in the previous iHunt book). The narrator also seems to commentate more on the not-Disneyland surroundings and trappings than on her life and the hardships she faces, which was what initially drew me into the previous book. Although I appreciate the commentary and found it insightful and amusing, I couldn’t help but feel that it was less personable than the previous book, and left me feeling like this should have been incorporated into a longer book. All that said, I enjoyed my time in San Jenero as I always have, and am looking forward to seeing what’s next in the series.

Goodreads Rating: 3/5 stars

And that’s a wrap, folks!

Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets was my first book by Alastair Reynolds and one of only a handful of scifi books I’ve ever read, and is a good beginner-level introduction to the genre. Slow Bullets is a quick 192-page read that I finished in one sitting. If you’re looking for something that you can speed-read through to make your Goodreads annual quota (heh), this is a fine choice; however, the characters and plot are largely unmemorable and leave little impact on the reader. Though it is a fast read, your time may be better spent on something with a bit more heft to it.

From the publisher’s webpage:

A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.

On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.

Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.

Slow Bullets is written with deliberately sparse details, in keeping with the central theme of forgetting: humans (war criminals from opposing factions) trying to erase their past crimes and their animosity towards each other; mechanical forgetting in the form of the ship literally overwriting parts of its own long-term memory to keep vital functions; and galactic forgetting in the form of The Sickening wiping out nearly all technologies in entire solar systems and reverting humanity to the Stone Ages. Anything that isn’t strictly related to pushing this theme is itself omitted. There are no sprawling descriptions or expansive lore and background in this; the writing is sparse, and what isn’t included is assumed to be a detail from a story told by an unreliable narrator who, herself, can no longer quite remember.

Unfortunately, this means that the reader is left to try to connect with sparsely fleshed-out tropes and not real characters. Orvin the antagonist is played up to be uniquely, almost absurdly evil against a backdrop of other war criminals. Prad is your basic nerd archetype, a ship crew member who can single-handedly wake, run, maintain, and repair the ship and all of its myriad functions. Scur, the protagonist and narrator, is largely absent of personality and reacts mechanically to situations. The other named characters don’t exist outside of dispassionate dialogue, and the unnamed characters are like a vague fog in the background.

On top of that is a plot that drifts, much like the ship itself. At the beginning, Scur is heavily injured and tortured (perfect revenge setup!) but when we next see her, she wakes up fully whole. There are goals that drive the plot forward (finding Orvin, dealing with the ship’s malfunctions, figuring out what happened and how to contact civilization) but they seem scattered. The story is cohesive and well-structured, but the objectives within don’t seem to matter that much. Why was it important to single out Orvin, other than simple revenge? And for that matter, if Scur is whole again and has so many other problems on her plate, why even bother with revenge?

Partway through the story we learn that one of the driving forces of the galactic war had been religion. Both sides interpreted and worshiped in slightly different ways, and they manifested in the form of two separate holy texts (the Books). Although it has some pretty obvious parallels to our real world, it doesn’t really get comment on or offer insight into the religious and cultural conflicts we see. It’s flavor text for a book that is already too light on details. Instead of being an interesting take on holy wars, it is instead just another cliché being abused for the sake of it.

It’s hard not to be cynical because, as I said, the book has been so pared of detail to be focused entirely on only what drives it forward. It was a decent enough introduction to scifi, though I doubt it will be worth remembering. I am looking forward to reading Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, as I have heard good things about it. Slow Bullets, however, will, like its cast drifting through space on the Caprice, fade from memory.

Goodreads Rating: 2/5 stars