Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10
-Alex  

Unconquerable Sun – It Will Brighten Your Day with a Nuclear Radiance

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never read a Kate Elliott book before. I didn’t even realize how prolific a writer she is until someone recently pointed it out to me. While I consider myself pretty adventurous, this definitely feels like a glaring blind spot. Absent literally any other segue, what caught my eyes about this book is it’s marketing tagline “gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” Normally, I don’t care for marketing, but something as simple and high concept as that will reel me in. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott, is a thrilling and intricate space opera that excels in worldbuilding and character development while delivering a relentlessly paced and heart-pounding plot. 

The book follows Sun, the current presumed heir to the Queen Marshall Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia. She just declared a major victory in a battle with one of the Republic’s oldest enemies, the Phene Empire, and is hoping to be announced as successor. However, her mother Eirene has other plans for her and sends her on a tour of the solar systems within Chaonian control. During this quasi victory parade/media relations tour, someone makes an attempt on Sun’s life, making her think a larger plot is afoot. Meanwhile, Persephone, a daughter of one of the major houses within the Chaonian court, is being roped back into the family’s political games after running away to the military academy. She doesn’t know what they have in store for her, and she wants no part of it as she becomes one of Sun’s Companions. As the intrigue of succession becomes more palpable, the Phene Empire and its sometimes friendly rival, the Yele League, plan for revenge to put the Republic of Chaonia back in its place. 

Let’s get this out of the way. Unconquerable Sun is a blast that glued my eyes to the page every time I opened it back up. Elliott spends an incredible amount of unwasted effort building the world her characters inhabit. She spreads a metric ass-ton of detail through the entire story, and does so with finesse, never bogging down the rest of the story. Elliott leaves no stone unturned as she describes everything from the military impact of a technology that enables interstellar travel, to the cultures that make up the different empires. Elliott adds a weight to the history of these galaxy-spanning empires I rarely experience, let alone find as captivating as the Republic of Chaonia and its struggle for autonomy. If I were to list everything I found cool about this book, it would take up several pages, but even that wouldn’t cover the effort Elliott goes through to make these little details add up and feel relevant to the story being told. 

Speaking of the plot, this book felt like riding a roller coaster while also spinning plates, and Elliott pulls it off. It’s bombastic, and constantly feels like the tension is rising. There are one or two moments of breathing room to allow the reader to digest everything happening, but I never felt that I couldn’t keep track of everything happening. Elliott really covers all the bases in Unconquerable Sun with political intrigue, chase scenes, one-on-one combat sections, epic space battles and powerful character dynamics that drive the emotional arcs of the main characters. On top of all that, the characters are wonderful to read, with more depth than I was expecting for something that already felt filled to the brim. I could lavish the rest of the review about Sun and Persephone and how fun and thoughtful the side characters were, but I’ll just say this: the characters are fantastic top to bottom in the book, and there are too many to really get in-depth about. 

Instead, I want to talk about Elliott’s writing, which is easily my favorite thing about this book, even after everything else I’ve mentioned. Her prose is not particularly flowery, but it is also more fleshed out than functional. Descriptions serve a purpose but add a little whimsy to everything to make it feel fantastical. However, her choice to tell Persephone’s story (and a few other side characters’ stories), through the first person, while telling Sun’s through a third person is absolutely masterful. I don’t know any other way to put it that is less gushing. It lent a human touch to Persephone and the people surrounding Sun while imbuing Sun with this mythic quality. The audience receives no inner monologue from Sun, dispelling any chance at understanding her doubts and fears. The reader is subject specifically to what Sun’s companions see, and what Elliott chooses to express in the third person. Because of that, Sun is an avatar of indomitable will, pure conviction, and ruthless cleverness. She will win, or die trying, and Sun does not try. Not only does Elliott manage to bestow this mythic quality on Sun, she tells you she is doing it, and got me rooting for her like some ecstatic fan all the same. 

Unconquerable Sun is not without fault, but the few issues I had were so inconsequential they were overpowered by everything I already mentioned. The book is through and through a delight to read. The world feels grounded but incredibly rich and new. The characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to, even Sun who always feels slightly distant. I cannot wait for the next book in the series, and I will definitely have to look at Elliott’s other books to fill the void. 

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10 

Sea Change – Be That You Wish to See

Nancy Kress has been on my to-read list for a while. She has a weight to her name, especially when it comes to her treatment of genetics and bio-engineering. I have not made my way to her earlier works yet, but I was presented with an opportunity to read Sea Change, and I decided that something new could be a good entry point. Sea Change is a short read with overt themes, forcing readers to ponder the use of genetically modified foods in preparation for climate change. While I think it handles that discussion with care, I was not entirely enamored with the characters or the story itself. 

Sea Change is told through the perspective of Renata Black, an agent of the Org, an underground group of environmental activists, scientists, and farmers who are secretly working on GMO variants of food. After a biopharmaceutical company caused The Catastrophe, GMOs were banned in the United States, and continuing research on them was forced underground. Renata herself is an agent who runs communications between a small splinter cell within the Org. She is in charge of making sure that the secret laboratories stay functional and hidden. Communications are handled through a very specific shade of paint, Tiffany Teal, and in small personal groups to avoid widespread uncovering of the group’s activities. However, Renata is sure there is a mole within her cell, and it’s up to her to make sure the offender is found before real damage is done. 

I will be honest, it’s very hard to write about a book like this. If you have read some of my reviews over time, you’ll know I often try to parse through the work and talk about the author’s handling of their more overt themes, focusing on the characters and the development of the theme throughout the book. Sea Change is weird to me because I think Kress handles the themes very well in terms of overall portrayal; she does not beat around the bush when it comes to instilling a specific message. Kress presents facts in such a bare and blatant manner it’s hard to look away. However, I had trouble reconciling this with the rest of the story as portions of it fell flat from a narrative perspective. Chiefly, I had issues with the main character Renata Black. 

Renata Black never felt like a full character to me. Part of that might be an issue with the book’s length, but I felt as though a lot of it stemmed from her development. A lot of her dialogue is delivered in a straightforward and factual manner. Every event within her life has a cause and effect stated very plainly through the narration, and very often her interactions with people felt transactional. There is a distinct lack of internal life that felt disruptive and weird. This could have been interesting if Renata herself had something to hide, or she was ashamed of something she was defensive about. It inhabited this weird space where she was talking to the reader and monologuing to herself, but never really accomplishing either. In some ways, there was a lurking sense of depression, but it never really solidified. When she became suspicious of those around her, it just fell flat. I was not in her head, feeling her concerns. While Renata’s life and choices were interesting and daring on paper, I never felt like she was in danger. There was no thrill or anxiety, but neither was there the confidence that comes with experience. The only times I really felt her come through were when she dealt with the people of the Quinault Indian Nation, but even these sections though had a perfunctory vibe to them.  

That being said, I think Kress handles science in this book with a level reverence I rarely see. She spends time teaching the reader about the facts and engages with the arguments for and against the topic at hand. Kress does not get overly detailed to a point that turns the reader off, and she employs a laser-like focus when it’s necessary to press a point home. When she describes incredibly weird things within genetic traits that could cause massive problems or be enormous boons, it never feels like a lecture. Kress disengages from the usual “technology good/bad,” and instead contemplates who stands to benefit and who should be making decisions regarding the use of GMOs. It never feels like a clever “both sides” argument either as Kress shows that ordinary everyday people are most often hurt. Power discrepancies are rarely shown in this subtle, but unforgiving way and Kress handles it incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed this “fight with what you have” mentality that was imbued within the different members of the Org and the Quinault Nation. Even though we did not get to see much of the side characters, we at least got to see their strengths and callings be emphasized within their roles.In the rebel groups, everyone was necessary regardless of skill or ability, which felt incredibly important to highlight in the times we are currently living in.

If you’re looking for a book with a targeted message as well as an engaging and educational discussion of a real-world topic, Sea Change is definitely for you. However, if you’re looking for a thriller that tries to balance all of the plates while doing the above, I think this book falls a little short. It’s a decent narrative representation of the dangers and benefits of GMOs, but it can be tough if you don’t buy into Renata Black. Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to more of Kress’s work because of this. 

Rating: Sea Change: 7.0/10
Alex

The Girl and the Stars – Not Exactly a Light in the Dark

I haven’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s work since Emperor of Thorns back in 2014. I was particularly put off by the final book in that trilogy, and I could not bother to pick up any of his later books, despite hearing reliable appraisals for them. It was just one of those rare instances where I gave up on following the conversation. So when Lawrence announced a new trilogy, I saw the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse with The Girl and the Stars

The book follows a teenage girl named Yaz. A member of the Ictha tribe, she’s reached an age where she has to pass the test that would solidify her within the tribe. The Ictha, along with other tribes, live within the northern icy regions of a planet called Abeth. There is not a lot of food, and no shelter as these tribes wander the frozen wastes, and only the fittest can survive. You couldn’t be too big, lest you eat too much food, and if you were too weak, you were a waste of energy to carry. So, children were tested, and those found wanting are tossed into a large pit within the ice. Yaz feels she will fail the test and be tossed into the hole. However, she passes, but her brother does not. As he is pushed down, she jumps without hesitation. At the bottom Yaz finds the Broken, a society made up of survivors of the fall. Unfortunately, they also have their own problems.

I’m going to rip the band-aid off right now. I had trouble with this book. Don’t get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff in here, but ultimately my experience was akin to Michael Bluth opening the famed paper bag in the freezer labeled “Dead dove do not eat:” “I don’t know what I expected.” I wouldn’t say Girl and the Stars is a bad book, but I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the world Lawrence built an incredible amount. Abeth is a really fantastic example of a new and interesting world. It’s a planet at the end of its ability to support human life, with undertones that the folks who live there are descendants of a space-faring human civilization, who have also forgotten that very fact. It’s such a satisfying and tasty seed from which to grow, and it scratches an itch and inflames a curiosity I haven’t had in a science fiction world for a while. 

However, while I enjoyed the end product and the horizons it presents, I did not like the actual worldbuilding in and of itself. Many reviews I read led me to believe that if I had not read Book of the Ancestor, I would miss nothing here. Now in some ways, this lack of context was interesting. The characters felt within their world, no need to explain the types of people that inhabited the wastes of Abeth. But with that also came a very distinct feeling that I should know, and therein lies the problem. Rarely do I reread paragraphs in books, but with Girl and the Stars, I found myself rereading whole chapters as if I missed something only to discover I was not missing anything from the text I had been given. Which leads me to my next gripe, Lawrence’s writing style. 

In this book, Lawrence writes from an informed third-person perspective, tied to Yaz. For half the book, this did not present problems. I often felt like I knew how Yaz was feeling and her immediate reactions to events. Unfortunately, Lawrence felt that this was occasionally limiting to describing what you might consider “cool events”. There are moments where, without warning, I was pulled out of Yaz into an out of body experience to witness something outside her senses, with narration to match. A paragraph later, I’m back with Yaz, my brain scrambled and without any greater context. This happened frequently enough to disrupt the whole experience, but not enough to build a pattern wherein I could expect it. It also felt as if sometimes this was used to hide information, moving the action forward without time to think about the implications of how something was said. It was incredibly jarring, especially when Lawrence eschewed all sense of place in an underground network of ice caverns by providing the barest minimum of descriptions. There was no sense of scale or understanding of where the characters were relative to anyone else. In some ways it can work, highlighting the labyrinth that is the underground, but Yaz doesn’t even mention it. Not even a single sentence of how confusing it would be to wander on her own without the help of the Broken. I just never got a sense of place or any sort of grounding, so the whole place just ran together.

Speaking of Yaz and the Broken, there was not a single character I could really get into – including Yaz herself. She seemed to fill the fairly typical YA female lead character role. She was indecisive, brash, and ended up finding a leadership role among an incredibly small group of folks to achieve her one goal – find her brother and leave, regardless of the harm caused to those around her. All the other characters could be defined using their name and a single sentence; and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t remember most of their names. I don’t want to skip over the fact that Yaz also seems to be entangled in a love square, but I also don’t have time or energy to get into that whole thing beyond the mere mention of it. I found the society of the Broken to be a cool concept, but we don’t get to see their lives. We don’t get to hear about how hard it is to scrape a living together at the bottom of the world. The reader is barely even given a hint to their struggles beyond “this guy wants war, and this lady doesn’t and it makes them mad at each other.” When characters died, the only thought in my head was “well that’s one less name to remember,” and that’s never a good thought to have. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate, I have not read Lawrence since 2014. I walked in with reservations, regardless of how open I was to the idea. I may have been led astray by other reviews in what to expect in terms of accessibility. You could even blame my fellow reviewers, people who know my opinions, and say “why would you do this?” All of those are very real points, and I think satisfying enough that if you like Lawrence, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl and the Stars. This was my experience as someone who has moved away from his work long enough to feel refreshed and ready to look at it with new eyes. So if you’ve had similar experiences in the past, the paper bag is best left unopened. If you’re newer and still curious, I would suggest starting somewhere else. 

Rating: The Girl and the Stars 5.0/10
-Alex 

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex

Anthropocene Rag – It Is What You Make Of It

50905290._sx318_sy475_I am always on the lookout for stories about America, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I find the myths about the United States, its formation, and expansion fascinating especially when they so often cover up many complicated and horrific histories. Its simplicity is enchanting to me and constantly begs deconstruction to find what the true “heart” of the American Story is. This is heightened during an election season, where talk of “what America is and should be” hangs heavy in the air. Add the third layer of COVID-19, and a lot of these questions and stories get brought into an even sharper focus when compared to the facts and histories. What the hell does that have to do with the book I am reviewing? Well Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine, is a clever, fun, engaging, and weird little book about a post-apocalyptic America that mostly succeeds in deconstructing how “we” talk about the story of America.

The book follows six main characters as they are visited by a construct named Prospector Ed, who gives them a golden ticket to enter the fabled Monument City. Each of the characters must travel to the Rocky Mountains across an America that is teeming with nano machines. A lot of the populace was killed and integrated into the machineries during an event called the Boom (the Boom is also used to refer to the machines collectively). The machines are everywhere, and depending on where you live, humans may or may not have a good relationship with the unpredictable Boom. In San Francisco, there is a relative harmony, as the machines inhabit human bodies. Other places are not so lucky, and people could be dismantled in seconds without even realizing it. But the Boom is doing something weird as all across the land, they are re-enacting the stories and folklore that make up the American Mythos.

Irvine’s writing is the first thing that truly hooked me about Anthropocene Rag. It feels like you’re sitting around a campfire with him as he recounts a past event. The characters come alive through his voice, making them feel both human and larger than life. The author also manages to make you as the reader complicit in the story through this stylization, asking you questions and sometimes making you feel as if you could stop it all at any moment. But you don’t, you want to know how it ends, you need to know how it ends. Fortunately, Irvine does not seem to judge you for this complicity, almost in some ways acknowledging that he too is at fault. It’s an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, and it calls attention to the story of America as well. Fortunately, Irvine succeeds in keeping the tone jovial, even as he is trying to get you to gaze into the abyss.

Irvine’s writing also helps the atmosphere within Anthropocene Rag. There is not a lot of plot, so Irvine relies very heavily on intimating feeling to great effect. The different regions that the characters begin their journey in, along with where they travel through, feel like you expect them to. I’m having a hard time explaining it, but Irvine nails the cultural osmosis of the different corners of America. Florida and New York City, feel like off versions of what we know of them today, as if something changed about them, but the bones are still there. There is a familiarity to them, as if Irvine wanted to reveal the core parts of them in a more thematic fashion. It was extremely haunting, and if that was Irvine’s goal, he succeeded. However, there is a slight tendency for some areas to feel “stereotypical” due to the fast nature of the book, but I also find it easy to overlook considering it is a lot more about the “feeling,” but I think some of it handily waved off in the deeper themes.

Among the myriad of themes, the one that obviously sticks out the most is “what is America?” It saturates every paragraph trying to fill the void between your eyes and the page. Irvine deftly explores this idea by using the campfire storytelling method I described above. Irvine gives no background to the disaster, just providing a name, the Boom, and the mystery around it. America as a concept barely exists within the text as the past is erased, forgotten. The only entities to remember it are the Boom themselves as they recreate and re-enact myths like Paul Bunyan and classic Mark Twain stories. Characters don’t know anything but their present lives and where they are headed. It feels as if Irvine is trying to mirror the creation of America by wiping away the past to create a new history, a new future, a new America. It feels especially clear when you compare it to the way conversations pass over the systematic extermination of Native Americans, “manifest destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” Irvine does it right in front of the reader using stories you know, stories you feel something about. While you’re complicit he’s doing it without you, almost as if he’s taunting you. It’s eerie and beautiful and hits all the right notes for me.

There is so much more I’d love to dive into with this story, but we would be here forever. I had a good time with the characters, their little conversations as they traveled the wilds. I loved how Irvine was able to make the land feel so big and so very small and insignificant at the same time. I didn’t particularly enjoy one of the reveals, but I don’t think it hurt the story. I don’t think the book is for everyone though, as it is a little weird, and exists more in the realm of metaphor than the concrete. Some of the journeys may also fall a little flat if you aren’t steeped in American Folklore. However, I highly recommend it if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to consider the idea of “America” in these trying times.

Rating: Anthropocene Rag 8.5/10
-Alex

Construct – The Foundations Have Been Laid

23365568I’ve never had the inclination to read self-published titles. I’m always worried I’ll read into it too deeply or be overly critical, because I can so rarely turn off that portion of my brain. So when Luke Matthews reached out to me and requested an honest review of his self-published book Construct, I was a little hesitant. After thinking about it though, I decided to give it a shot. Construct ended up being something unexpected, and though it certainly has some flaws, the work Matthews put into his world and characters shows a lot of potential.

Construct follows Samuel, an artificial being that has awakened from a terrible memory as the building he is in is burning down around him. He recognizes he is not human, doesn’t know his own name, but feels hunted nonetheless. Deep down he feels his memory is important and puts him in further danger, and so he hides from nearby voices searching the wreckage. He sets off on a journey to find out who and what he is, and why someone would want to kill him. It is a streamlined and clean concept that works for the book.

I want to start off by highlighting my favorite part about this book: Matthews’ writing. He is incredibly thorough with his descriptions, allowing the reader to feel the world. I immediately felt as if I was in some sort of dark fantasy western, where small towns and large cities were miles from each other, and the populace mostly tried to keep out of trouble. People knew each other by their dealings and less by reputation, which was something I rarely notice in other books. Matthews’ descriptions built a good sense of rhythm too, allowing the pace to slow down a little and take stock with more vivid descriptions. Meanwhile, the action scenes and tension heavy dialogues were focused on the characters and their emotions. While Matthew’s prose is his greatest strength, it also shows some weaknesses. Especially when it comes to the emotional range of the characters, they often felt like anime characters, where the most extreme forms of emotion were always on display. It wasn’t bad – especially since he uses a large vocabulary – but once I noticed it, I could not unsee it.

The characters, in general, were enjoyable.. Samuel as the ever-curious and ever-surprising construct was delightful. He has a childlike curiosity that was heightened, not hampered, by the danger he felt. However, this felt like one of the only aspects of his personality and he rarely ever made any character-defining decisions for himself. There often was a lot of telling about how he was different from “other” constructs, without too many comparisons showing how others operate. It became stale fairly quickly as even Samuel began to finish other character’s sentences pointing it out. I do want to point out though that for a decent amount of the book, Samuel did feel out of place, in a good way. The beginning of the book highlighted this the most with his interior narration being distanced even from himself, as he tried to work out who or what he was. It was an excellent beginning to his character that really showed off Matthews’ style.

A lot of the intrigue was dictated by a fairly solid supporting cast. The people Samuel meets along the way, felt like they had their own little lives that were interrupted by his presence. Conversations between Samuel and others were more often revealing of the supporting cast, highlighting their motivations and concerns. They never felt insightful of Samuel himself however, beyond the aforementioned curiosity. There were a few unexplained moments where characters seemed overly reactive to others’ choices, but I think some of that is supposed to be left for another book. The villains felt pretty typical– overly caricatured as headhunters who really loved to headhunt. I enjoyed the dynamic between the villainous duo, their banter being something I looked forward to, but it didn’t really give me too much insight into who they were. Since they are about thirty percent of the book’s point of view, it felt like more could have been made of them.

As far as the plot goes, while it didn’t reinvent the genre it was also clean and direct. In particular, Matthews excelled in his pacing. The book moves fast, but gives some time for the plot and characters to breathe. There wasn’t a single moment that felt wasted, and it felt pretty good to read a plot-heavy book that did not dilly dally. Each stop along Samuel’s path gave him something to consider, and his presence altered characters he encountered in some fashion. The constant feeling of the chase saturated every page once the reader and Samuel were made aware of it. There were a few contrived moments, especially when there were some out of left field point of view switches, but overall I enjoyed the story. It was a fairly typical story of lost memory but executed well in an entertaining way.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Construct. It is not a heavy read, and it’s fun despite some of its issues. The world is intriguing though I feel like it has not been fully revealed. The characters went through a lot and not everyone comes out okay in the end. Matthews clearly left room for more to be told as there is a lot of character tension left unresolved. I want to thank the author for both the opportunity and the free copy of his book in exchange for an honest review. And In the spirit of that, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to more of Matthews’ work.

Rating: Construct – 7.0/10
Alex

Hearts of Oak – It Did Not Grow On Me

When I read the premise of Hearts of Oak, by Eddie Robson, I got excited. Growing buildings within an expanding city? Sign me up. The main character is an architect trying to understand the underpinnings of her world after being awoken from a stupor that required her to continuously expand the kingdom? Heck yeah, this is right up my alley. On top of that, just throw in a talking cat, who is the best friend and advisor to the king of this land? Let me get a blanket and curl up on the couch. Unfortunately, this little novella did not really live up to the hype, and maybe that is my fault in some respects. All in all Hearts of Oak is a short novel that is full of twists and turns but lacks any real character and heart. 

The book starts off interesting enough as Iona, the main protagonist, is reviewing plans for several of the buildings in her city, noting the absurdity of the continuous expansion of buildings for what seems to be no reason. Her colleague has recently died in a building collapse, and something weird happens at his funeral. Another man runs and jumps onto the casket as it is carted into a furnace for cremation. While unsettling, it is not until she investigates the collapsed building, does Iona start to feel like something is off. Meanwhile, the King debates with his advisor, the aforementioned talking cat, about approving more and more construction, confused as to why he should not be concerned with the people within his city. o

I’ll just pull this splinter out right away, I did not like this book. The beginning felt charming at first but quickly lurched into tedium. Iona was unconvincing as a character, let alone an architect. She often griped about her job, and the sheer audacity of the King to request larger and larger buildings without accounting for the needed strength to ensure their long term viability. Character moments involved a lot of telling, leading to Iona feeling like what someone thought an architect should act like. There was no real connection to the city or the world she had a part in building, the descriptives were minimal, and there was no real enchantment with particular buildings or the city as a whole. Her sole trait of “being an architect” felt superficial and became completely irrelevant as the book progressed. One could say, “well the twists make it irrelevant”, and to them I say hooey. The plot did not connect me with Iona, nor did it set her apart from the other characters. 

Speaking of the other characters, they barely felt integral to the plot. The King, the book’s other point of view, just spends his time listening to his cat and sitting around for most of the book. He barely adds any real context beyond “this is why the city must expand.” It could have been interesting if the humor or satire felt more direct, but most of the time it just felt like a red herring. As with most of the characters, the King felt like an undeveloped concept tossed into the book to make the world feel interesting, but ended up adding no real character or drama. The other characters I could barely remember, and didn’t have any particular traits beyond “they existed.”

I hear you say, “Alex, but if everything is in service to the plot, that must at least be enjoyable right?” Well, readers, this is where it gets a little messy. I will say there were certainly interesting twists and turns throughout the book that made the plot somewhat exciting. However, there was no weight to the discoveries. I did not get any sensation from the fast-paced unraveling of the mysteries. I do not want to get into specifics to avoid spoilers, but if things feel off as you read the book, it’s because things are off. As much as I wanted to enjoy these revelations, they felt hamstrung by their spontaneity. Each successive reveal felt like a jack-in-the-box, with Iona furiously cranking until the clown pops out, and she can move onto the next one. It just had no real build-up, and the absurdity of each reveal quickly lost its luster after the second or third twist.

In the end, Hearts of Oak was not bad, it just did not resonate with me in any way. The interesting bits of the premise were window dressing with no real impact on the story. The characters were a vehicle to move the plot along, offering no substantive opinions of their own, and having zero on-screen development. The climax left much to be desired, as whatever cathartic character moment Robson was going for fell flat. There were some cool ideas through the book, but there was no exploration of them. I can’t even really recommend it as a fast-paced low-stakes palate cleanser, as it just left a bland but coating taste in my mouth. 

Rating: Hearts of Oak – 5.0/10
-Alex

Docile – It Will Bring You To Your Knees

If you have read a lot of my reviews in particular, you might have noticed that I enjoy reading books from the perspective of an individual’s relationship to society. So when offered the chance to read a book with the tagline “there is no consent under capitalism,” you can imagine the inhuman sounds of excitement that spawned within my mouth. Not only does it scratch the aforementioned itch, but I get to think about capital “C” Capitalism too? Sign me up, I’m ready to report for duty. Fortunately, for people who are not me, K. M. Szpara’s debut novel Docile, is not quite the screed I was looking for. Instead, Szpara delivers an intelligent, emotional and deeply human exploration of how society, economics and power can affect those struggling at the bottom, as well as those who rest at the top. 

Docile is the story of two men, Elisha and Alex, in a near future Baltimore where trillionaires reign supreme. The state of Maryland enacted a law in which debt is shared by members within a family, but can also be sold to those with the means, for years, even lifetimes, of servitude. Luckily, for those willing to sell their debt, there is Dociline, a drug that inhibits the short term memory of the user and turns them into an effective automaton, allowing them to serve out their term in relative “peace” and ignorance. Elisha’s family is millions of dollars in debt, and he takes it upon himself to sell it and serve so that his younger sister has a chance at life. Alex is a trillionaire and heir apparent to the Bishop Family, the makers and distributors of Dociline. After a recent breakup that makes the board question his abilities, Alex purchases Elisha’s debt and takes him on as a Docile, as part of his plan to prove the effectiveness of a new version of Dociline. Alex’s plans are thrown to the wind when Elisha refuses the drug, creating new terms for their relationship. What follows is a story of sex and abuse as the two men try to discover who they are to themselves, and each other. 

Szpara accomplishes an incredible amount within Docile and interweaves so much of it together that it’s very hard to separate and highlight the strengths of the individual parts. Fortunately, I do not have to break that much down to really get to the good stuff. The characters are honestly the star of this book, and I owe that to Szpara’s attention to baseline emotions, deterioration of said emotions, and the internal monologuing he provides for Elisha and Alex. Both characters are written in incredible detail but not in a way that overwhelms the reader. Their transformations through the book are gradual, aided in part by time skips that feel natural as the characters follow the emotional paths their decisions set them down. Elisha’s journey of defiant and somewhat naive farmboy to cowed subservient plaything was as heart wrenching as it was believable. In turn, Alex’s transition from uncertain scientist to a domineering and demanding master was cleverly executed through his understanding of playing the role, and yet he still becomes the mask. 

Much of the excellent characterization is highlighted by Szpara’s efficient and descriptive writing style. He is straight-forward and not ambiguous in his descriptions of character’s feelings, sexual acts being performed, or societal roles being played. It is a raw and unflinching look at power dynamics from an economic, social and personal level. That is not to say however, that morality shines through every step of the way through the book, with Szpara highlighting what is wrong in every situation. Instead, Szpara questions the systems at play through the character’s own inner monologues, following their own trains of thought after they did something they found distasteful. Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms. It pulled me in while allowing me to think about the things Szpara’s characters were dealing with. 

The lynchpin argument of the book is right there on the cover – “There is no consent under Capitalism.” If this feels daunting and in your face, do not be alarmed. Szpara’s handling of that thesis is more human and intimate than I expected. Instead of a sweeping system wide exploration of all the different ways big and small people are affected, the whole of Docile is focused on a single pair of men, one with power and privilege, the other without. Szpara goes to great lengths to paint this relationship with as many colors of abuse and intimacy as he can, highlighting the lack of choice, and the gap between Elisha and Alex. The author also emphasizes how the economic system bleeds into every aspect of life, every interaction is tainted in some small way, that it’s impossible to know where the system ends and one as an individual begins. Szpara surprised me most with his exploration of Alex, and his role within the system he was perpetuating. The small amounts of maliciousness that start to get infused in his daily life as he “trains” Elisha to prove to the company board he is a stable and productive member of Elite society. How he, along with Elisha, become the embodiment of his theme of “you change a little bit every day,” until they both become unrecognizable. It was cleverly and masterly handled. 

Lastly, I just want to commend Szpara for writing a dystopia that in its bones, reflects the material conditions of now, instead of just the worries and anxieties of where we as a culture might be headed. I think there is a tendency to slip into “the worst possible scenario,” and, to me, it feels like the author avoids that here. Instead, Szpara tries to highlight what is already concerning today, with a slight step up on the absurdity scale. Instead of billionaires there are trillionaires. Instead of working your whole life to pay for debts incurred in order to participate in life, you sell your debt to become a docile and take a drug to ease the pain. The questions that characters ask themselves do not just relate to their specific situation but highlight general concerns that then branch into other questions. On top of that Szpara avoids spiraling, and digging too deep where everything feels hopeless, choosing to focus on what’s important: the people who inhabit their/our lives and who we choose to be around them. It was an incredibly touching revelation. 

Overall, Docile, is an incredibly fascinating read, with wonderful characters and a world that feels all too real. Unfortunately, some may be put off by the incredibly vivid and descriptive sex scenes, or the large amount of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on display. However, if that is not a hindrance to you as a reader, this is definitely worth your time. Rarely has such a monstrous world felt like it was dealt with in such a human fashion. I definitely recommend it, and look forward to more of Szpara’s work. 

Rating: Docile – 9.0/10
-Alex