Book Review: The Mirror Empire

20646731I will say this: with The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley definitely tried to step outside the classic boundaries where fantasy is concerned. True to form, if there was a trope or type to be twisted, she at the least inverted it.

This was my first experience with Kameron Hurley, despite certain implorations from friends. As such, I went in without any expectations, and what I found gave me swift hopes. Stylistically, the script flows easily, with poignant prose and snappy, fast-moving dialogue. Playing with the traditional concepts of gender was slapped right up front—one culture had five, another three. Male and female role reversal was leading the charge. To top it all off, there was the lush opportunity of a world consumed, not by Hell or another Plane or that shadowy kingdom to the south, but by an alternate version of itself. Furthermore, the magic system features a litany of powers derived from the various stars themselves, and whichever was ascendant at the time, turning literal the classic quip of “celestial magic.”

In essence, it is a book set to challenge many of the long-standing conventions of epic fantasy, while presenting a backdrop with action-packed potential beyond cultural revolution.

To begin, the story itself: it hops around a goodly bit, but we are granted the advantage of world-building spanning not just one, but two worlds. Herein, the world of the main characters is in the grips of a major cataclysm, heralded by the rising of a dark star which allows alternate versions of that planet to essentially align with one another and break the boundaries like spirits on Halloween. Enter Lilia, a young woman shunted between two of these worlds and left with an unshakable determination to rejoin her mother. Meanwhile, alternate versions of everyone she knows and meets are essentially plotting the doom of…well, everyone she knows and meets. Enemies are everywhere and countries are tearing themselves apart trying to stop armies on the march and root out spies wearing friends’ and lovers’ skins. The story bounces between these nations, from the perspectives of Lilia, a newly-crowned Kai (king), a masochistic but devoted general, and one of Lilia’s powerful but rather clueless friends.

Perspective, perspective, perspective is key here. There’s plenty of it—which, let’s be honest, is fairly standard these days. Unfortunately, these are a touch hit or miss. We never quite get inside characters’ heads, no matter how much time we spend with them. The particular POV gives us thoughts, at times, but never fully immerses us in the person we are tailing; there is always some aloofness. There’s a number of times the POV shifts to one-off characters, who appear only long enough to be snuffed out. Furthermore, some of the main characters slouch a bit when it comes to impressions. (VAGUE SPOILER FOLLOWS) In the case of Zezili, the general-savior-man raper of an empire, the only admirable quality she really shows is her loyalty, and her whole arc is based around the necessity of breaking that quality for the greater good. Lilia, our focal point for the series, starts off strong, and she had a lot of potential, but as more characters came in, her single-minded focus seemed to railroad her development more than a bit, only to be rushed toward evolution at the end. It felt…haphazard. As for the less than kingly Kai? Much of his arc is others solving problems while he laments his ability to pursue one polyamorous love.

Which…honestly is another thing that gave me pause. I loved the potential of the gender bending dynamic here. When Hurley began to mention the genders, as well as relationships, and scratch the surface of their roles and meanings, I got giddy. So many possibilities. It could have had a real opportunity to expand self-consciousness and find new ways at considering how we identify. Instead, this…didn’t go to the depths I wanted it to.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some examination. The polyamorous style of relations, the inherently bisexual quality of most characters, the submissive quality of the male role—while far from subtle, were an interesting dynamic to see played out. Women were decidedly the guiding factor in most lands. Yet that seemed to be as far as it went in most cases. There was no real expansion on the genders, no depth given to lend them individual intricacy. People talked frequently of the partners they wished to mate with, the various structures of love they wished to enter into, but aside from one case, where it was more of a harem, we never got to see how this structure worked, how people entered into them, where these roles actually put people in terms of sexuality and relationships, and their place within them. It allowed for power role reversal, but never brought these identities to life.

That said, there is plenty of originality here, and a vivid, sweeping quality of culture that cannot go unnoticed and unrecognized. In terms of worldbuilding, it was top notch, and without a trace of the western aligned molds fantasy so often falls so neatly into. Cannibalistic Buddhism, dog horses and bear cavalry (though tragically we never got to see them at war), and organic structures woven of vines, mushrooms and magic, along with the prevalence of blood magic made for a dizzying array of structural uniqueness that immediately tosses the reader out of Kansas and into a magical realm. This is no Uncanny Valley; this is 100% fantasy.

Also, sentient plants that like to eat people. Take THAT, vegetarians.

Overall? I’d recommend it for the exceptionality and the issues it prods, as well as the start it embodies in stepping outside cultural norms. The worldbuilding is solid, and even if you have some trouble connecting with the characters, the pace should be enough to sweep you along.

(But seriously: bear cavalry in an adult fantasy novel. This is where you slow clap.)

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Star Wars Aftermath: A Lesson on the Hype Train and Internet Trolls

Let it be known: Disney is ready for its Star Wars debut and they really, really want you to know it. Their mark? To hearken back to days of old, but with fresh new insights brought to you by wonderfully sassy and modern writers like Chuck Wendig.

Wendig’s garnered himself a lot of controversy with this book. Yet it’s not the character of the novel many are attacking; it’s the nature of its characters. See, he broke an old Star Wars maxim and, in turn, made the universe more realistic for it.

Send in the Rainbow Stormtroopers.

Not really. His was a more subtle touch. Five characters. All homosexual. One of them a main character (out of a bajillion – technical term) who makes it apparent exactly once, and which has absolutely zero impact on the driving plot. And for this? The internet explodes. Yet the characters weren’t exactly made overt. Like I said: no Rainbow Stormtroopers. They were just going about their lives, while happening to be gay.

Almost like…people! Who could imagine?

Honestly, it’s sad that I even have to take time out of my review to mention it, but given the furor of the fandom over it? I felt need. Serious need.

But since I’m on the subject: characters. Aftermath has a lot of them. Main characters. Side characters. One-off characters. Badass mother characters and less developed, gruff bounty hunter characters. At times it feels like delving into a George R.R. Martin piece, minus the risk of death. (Cue Rains of Castamere)

Norra, the mother figure, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Sloane, the Imperial villain of our piece, is a close second. The former because she is the most developed—a lioness with her own skills and desires who never the less is fiercely devoted to her son: a roving ball of snark and stubbornness who also happens to be a…technological savant? The latter, because it’s a Star Wars villain who isn’t simply possessed by the drive to kill the non-believers. She likes the Empire for the order it brings—not necessarily the genocidal undertones. To achieve that, she will play the game anyway she must.

For the most part, though, what we’re given is a bunch of very skilled characters that, while enjoyable in small doses, are somewhat lacking in the personality department. You’re not going to lose yourself in them, particularly due to the construction of the novel: short chapters, interspersed with “interludes” from around the galaxy, which feature additional one-off characters.

I get what Wendig was attempting to do with these sections—this book, after all, is an ode to the universe at large, trying to show us the breakdown of one society and the restoration of another. These vignettes give hints as to the greater picture…yet they can’t help but feel a bit jarring and out of place. The characters therein aren’t particularly memorable, the events have no immediate impact, and while they contribute to the mood of the piece at large, I dare say the book would have been largely unchanged without them.

The writing? Fast-paced, as I mentioned, with points that reach for depth, but usually end up clawing at the surface. A little stilted in execution.

The plot? Simplistic on the good side of things, intricate on the evil side of things, but since the evil side of things really doesn’t get anywhere with their intricate scheming, and the good carries the majority of our attention throughout the novel, what we’re left with is a somewhat convoluted, but not entirely thought provoking adventure romp. Pretty much all problems can, in fact, be solved by shooting first.

And bucketheads can’t shoot.

What we are left with, for all this, is a somewhat clunky, if entertaining, romp through the side alleys of the Star Wars universe. I’d describe it as a good beach or airplane read, but not something that’s going to enthrall you from start to finish. Certainly not something that deserved all the hype and shouting and angry roars from the community. Calm down, everyone. It’s a book. Judge it on its merits, not on an all too human agenda.

Given to the stars? 2.5/5

Book Review: Kalimpura

Would it suffice to say that I wanted (and hoped for) so much more from this series?

Kalimpura is the grand finale to the three book series on Green, the miscreant ninja girl punching her way through the conventional and divine worlds alike in the search, ultimately, to find a place for herself. As Endurance left off on some cliffhangers, Kalimpura picks up just after—and quickly pulls us away again from the city Green spent all of last book getting reacquainted with. That happens to probably be for the best, though, as things in Kalimpura have taken a turn for the worse, with the Temple of the Lily Goddess at its lowest point yet, and the gruff folks in the Bittern Court taking up a page from the megalomaniacal playbook.

A mess ensues. And I don’t mean for Green—I mean for us, the readers.

Lake has always had trouble with pacing in these books. Is Kalimpura’s more on-point and to par than the initial, scattered endeavor of Green was? Yes. Yet the trouble that arises in Kalimpura goes well beyond between random bouts of action and immovable characterized disconnection, to the actions of those characters themselves. You will want to ask them questions—you will not get the answers you desire, or more often, many answers at all. The baddies, as I said, are kind of in that megalomaniacal camp, with the classic baddy mentality—“What do you want? Everything! Why do you want it? Cause! When do you want it? Now!”

Where is the character? The personality? There is no growth here—and certainly not in the form of the myriad cast of red shirts and other randoms that traipse through to little end. Implausibilities (and I do try to use that word sparingly in fantasy) abound, and for the most part, there’s just no accounting for them beyond poor plotting.

As it has been all along, gender and religion (spirituality) are still critical here, and these are undertaken with the same interesting poise they have always been under Lake’s pen. Naturally, these raise more questions than answers, but they are points that get one thinking.

And then there’s Green. Green, Green, Green.

Green has been a frustrating character for me from the very beginning. She is detached, willfully disengages, and yet claims the contrary. She bemoans, and fighting always seems to be the first impulse—which is to say, she’s a fighter not a thinker; impulsive to the utmost. Her sexuality is always at the fore of her thoughts—even in the most awkward, inappropriate situations. Seriously, it’s this woman’s cure to all things. I have no problem with sexual situations in fantasy, but they are just poorly handled in these books, and feel, above all, like they’re there for the sex itself, not for any real purpose or advancement of the plot. Green is not an intricate character, and when one factors in her superwoman capabilities matched with the luck and incompetence of the world around her, things can seem…well, downright boring at times. Pre-supposed.

In all? This was a series with a lot of potential. There is a rich world lurking beneath the pages, that puts a lot of important questions to the forefront of our own investigative minds—but what we get is a poorly plodded, disappointing adventure, populated by characters lacking the staying power of personality.

Book Review: Echoes of Old Souls

“I’ve lost you, forever, so many times. And I’d do it all again.”

I have a word for you: lyrical.

It’s a word that I cannot apply to nearly enough literature, but I must apply it here. Like the echoes to which it speaks, this collection of short stories (By Nika Harper) resonates with the beauty of old souls returned. I want to call it a ghost story, but that wouldn’t quite be doing it justice. Tales of rebirth might be more accurate, but they run the gamut from stirring elegies of sorts to the humor many might more generally associate with “the Nikasaur,” to downright “spooky” tales of what connects us to this earth, and however many lives that might entail.

Of course, the short story format may not be immediately apparent to everyone. Echoes of Old Souls is divided into chapters, and the only thing denoting the chapter change are the names of those old souls contained within. So if you’re not careful, you might mistake it for a building of quite a cast of characters (which it is, in many regards, anyhow). When I say short, I mean very, very short. Most stories are only a couple pages long and it feels more like you are hopping from brain to brain rather than getting in-depth engagement with characters—but what Ms. Harper manages to do in those short spans is admirable.

Her writing has a poetic quality that paints some very human, if ethereal portraits—in all their myriad shades. It’s a fine debut, and will engage your curiosity.

Book Review: Retribution Falls

So, a daemonologist, a smuggler, and an Archduke’s heir walk into an airship—oh dear, you haven’t heard this one before, have you?

Retribution Falls is, like much of its steampunky brethren, strange above all else. The good sort of strange, mind you, but strange none the less. No lizard people, but airships abound (because how else would we know it was Steampunk? The goggles would make no sense!), magic and daemons are in the air, and money is the name of the game. Money is, after all, the driving focus of this novel, given that it’s a tale of a crew of smugglers.

Enter Darien Frey, captain of the Ketty Jay—a ship he loves above all else. Even his crew. Or his passengers. Even…well, alright, money would probably give it a run for it. He’s a man that would look a thief in the eye and tell him to go screw himself rather than turn over his precious ship—even if it meant getting some of the (expendable) souls around him iced. His crew? Much the same in temperament. But what do you expect? They’re a crew of bandits, smugglers, and lowlifes of the lowest rate.

No, I mean it, the lowest rate. They lack success, luck, and the money that goes with it. They barely have the money to keep flying but—you guessed it—with the dawning of the book, is the dawning of an opportunity: the job to end all jobs. Like any “job”, though, a hero (alright, anti-hero) isn’t about to get off without a hitch—and in this case, the hitch involves explosions and false charges of murder. Whoops. Welcome to fame (sans fortune) and a top spot on the number one most wanted list! Toss in a fugitive daemonologist for flavor, a desperate need to prove innocence, not to mention a seasoning of dark humor, and what you’ve got here is a real winner.

Does it have the depth you know I love? Alright, well, not in its entirety, but it strikes a decent enough balance for a book as outright fun as this one. Character development does abound, characters learn from past mistakes, and as quick as you can swallow this bit of literature, it’s rare that you actually feel left wanting over its course. No info-dumps will weigh you down, so it’s a speedy read.

Also: there is daemonism. Daemonism magic, to be exact, which is a sort of outright fantasy mixed with pseudoscience, and used just enough to tease one’s interest without giving enough away to truly pick apart. What’s more: it’s magic with a downside! Not all powerful—and that’s just the sort of magic I like.

Basically, Retribution Falls is an amusing package that fires on almost every cylinder: fast-paced action (including airship action, which is always glorious), rampant piracy, and characters with humor—and, well, character. In the words of a terrible song? I like it, I love it, I want some more of it. This is how you steampunk.

Book Review: Baptism of Fire

baptism-of-fireSimply delightful, though I dare say it was a painful wait for it! I should also add that it might be my favorite of the English translated Witcher novels so far—a beautiful blend of character, political deviance, and magical shenanigans (which is my way of saying action of many kinds). Though the forward progress can drag its heels a bit at times, feeling as though the wheels are turning (and, admittedly, a lot being learned) without actually progressing, there is not a single of these moments that will linger too long on the conscious mind of the reader. Neither Geralt, nor those around him, ever sit in one place long enough for that to be the case.

The sorceresses are the primary force for political momentum herein, though Nilfgaard and its naughty streak remain at the edge of every action and reaction. It dwells heavily on the symbol of the Baptism of Fire—a journey a great many of the characters seems to be walking here, above and beyond merely Geralt of Rivia. A new friend herein, one whom you can’t take but take quickly to, a Mr. Regis, is quick enough to point that little detail out.

Sapkowski has this delightful gift for balancing the dark grit and clever wit together atop the pin needle of high fantasy that is difficult to be equaled. Elves, Dwarves, and magic abound—yet somehow you cannot read his books without using the word “human” significantly. The interactions, the personality he breathes into his creations—it’s at the same time both complex and yet soothingly natural.

One must always worry when a translation is set before them—worry that something will be lost in the translation, that something of the beauty of the work will not hold up to the editor’s keen axe. Not so, here. If the book has lost anything in the translation, yet remains of such rich delight, then the original must be truly breathtaking. Sapkowski is a storyteller I would highly recommend—and Baptism of Fire is another notch on that belt.

Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

The problem with hype is something like the line the Joker met Batman’s first steps at interrogation with: it leads with the head, leaving reaction somewhat fuzzy. Don’t get me wrong, though—this isn’t going to be “one of THOSE reviews.”

For years, I’ve heard this book (and at least its immediate sequel, in all honesty) referenced as classics of not only the Space Opera genre, but the Hard SF genre at large. Big ideas. Big space. Lots of text to lose yourself in. Yet the fact is: I did not love it. Not nearly as much as everyone around me seems to think I should, at any rate. Rather than spend the time pondering why I’m running one way when the rest of the pack (there’s dogs afoot in here, you know) is running the other, I’m just going to lay things out as I would for any other.

The book is solidly written, intelligent, with a broad concept of world-building that encompasses, naturally, a whole universe—and a uniquely structured one at that. Detail, detail, detail—that is what lies at the core of this book, which becomes even more apparent if one takes the time to read the author’s own notes on the work.

It is also dense. It is not riveting, or thrilling, or terribly gripping—this is not sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fiction, but rather, lean back, read, and read again fiction to try and keep the whole scope of its creativity straight. It takes us to a galaxy where aliens with pack minds, malevolent “powers” and zones of thought—I.E. stratifications within the galaxy each with its own different levels of potential technology and capabilities—abound.

Yet I am a man that loves character, makes it his bread and butter. Nothing connects you to a universe like a strong character—and they were lacking here. The Tines—the pack-minded inhabitants of the book’s main setting—are a fascinating study in the possibilities of other life, managing to find ground between the oft touted sci-fi extremes of mankind’s individualism and outright FOR THE SWARM mentalities. Other characters, above and beyond the confines of the Tines, however, were not similarly fleshed out—there was an underlying shallowness to the depth that disappointed me. For that matter, many a heavy or dense notion could have been better fleshed out through some of these characters, rather than lengthy explanation.

For that matter, the villain—the Blight—is…well, not much of an evil presence. Day to day struggle on Tines feels more ominous than that entity—beyond the prologue, it scarcely seems a clear and present threat; instead, it feels like a removed opportunity, a binding thread that is, nevertheless, a little loose.

In short? I wanted more character growth. I wanted more plot. I loved the world-building, but there is building a universe and giving that universe life, and I feel that’s the line Vinge tripped on here.