I’ve never been entirely enamored with Norse mythology. Or at least, I’ve never been exposed to it in a way that has subsumed me in the ways that Greek mythology has permeated a lot of western pop culture. When I get snippets, there is a small part of me that begins to crave, but I never fully take the plunge. Sure, I know few of the names of the gods, along with several denizens of their bestiary, but it’s not ingrained in my psyche like the Greek myths. So when I saw a debut author releasing a Norse inspired fantasy, I just had to put on the Dark Horse list. Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long, despite it’s rocky start, is a worthy read with the feel of a legend in the making.
The story follows the Eangi warrior priestess Hessa in her journey to earn back her goddess’ favor. Hessa recently fell out of Eang’s grace by not killing a traveller that stayed within her temple, as she was ordered to do. Hessa was just following hearth law, so the visitor came and went. While Hessa was waiting for a sign from Eang to know how to gain back her favor, Eang sent the very subtle omen of having her home village raided and burned down by a band of Algatt warriors. Her husband was killed and the survivors were enslaved, her goddess nowhere in sight. Hessa tries to fight back with what little fire of Eang she had within her, but she is ultimately captured herself. Hessa herself is then sold to Omaskat, the man her god demanded she kill. In a scuffle she breaks free, is whisked away by a river miles away from her home with only one goal in mind, vengeance.
There was a lot I like about this book, but before I get to that, I do want to address the main issue I ran into while trying to get into the story. The first third of the book was a slog for me. Generally, this is somewhat a me issue, since I generally dislike straight forward first person perspectives, but I just didn’t find Hessa all that compelling on her own. She’s a bit narrow minded and blind to the world around her beyond her duties to the Goddess Eang and preparing for the annual raiding parties by nearby tribes. It makes sense, but I just found it hard to care for the struggles she was facing. It didn’t help that a lot of her internal monologue felt very repetitive. The aspect I did enjoy the most about this time in the book was Long’s description of the environment. However, once the reader experiences the Gods Hessa has to contend with, the story kicks off and Hessa truly begins her journey.
Hessa really starts to shine once she encounters Nisien at a place known as Oulden’s Feet, named for the god of the Soulderni people. Here she has to contend with someone outside her village, and learn more about their ways. Nisien works as a good foil because he’s seen a lot of the world, since he used to be an auxiliary in the Arpa (similar to the Roman Empire) army. I particularly liked that meeting someone who was not a raider of her lands, and being cared for by them doesn’t really seem to change her, as much as it allows her to open up. Not long after meeting Nisien, the pantheon of Gods within Hall begins their parade, and what a parade it is. Long’s Norse themed gods were a delight, and the story she weaves within her tale is filled with nice twists and turns fueled by Hessa’s choices and the whims of the gods. Ogam, the son of Eang and Winter (yeah, THE WINTER) steals the show every time he shows up. He has an unmatched charisma and bravado that really sets him apart from the other humans and gods Hessa encounters. Every encounter she has with something in the world feels meaningful in a mythical way, and it became fun to just explore the land with her while she tries to carry out her mission of revenge.
The land itself feels alive and breathing. Obviously, there are many gods, and each one seems to have their own tribes of people worshipping them and carrying out their will in the mortal realm. There are conflicts spurned by belief, as much as there is acceptance in their existence. There is an ebb and flow to the land and the people that Long portrays quite well, even as it starts to fall apart. The regions felt solid, but breathable as if most of the people didn’t recognize any sort of borders (except for the Arpans) beyond their particular villages and places of worship. There is a map at the end of my copy, but personally, I think Long captures the feeling of knowing the land, without the map. There are places that Hessa feels comfortable in, and there are places that are mythical to her, even though they are not hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I truly felt transported to another world where the vastness of the world had yet to be realized by the people you were engaged with and it was magical.
Long has written a solid debut. Sure it has a rocky start, but if you stick with the story just a little bit, it will definitely be worth it. The descriptions of the land, and the people who inhabit it are fun and mesmerizing. The mythology is a blast in it’s own right, and Hessa’s journey through it truly is fantastic. I didn’t even get into how enjoyable the action scenes were, but I was honestly more impressed with the rest of the book. It is Hessa’s story, and Long does an admirable job of making the revelations feel like they are hers and not just an expansion of the world. If you are at all interested in Norse inspired fantasy, I definitely recommend you check out Hall of Smoke.
If you’re not familiar with me, you’ll first need to understand that I have a bad habit of reading things I hate, and reading too much into those things that I hate. I imagine everyone does it on some small level. There is that quick hit of rage dopamine you get whenever the thing you hate does something you don’t like, and you can’t help but burn out those receptors and permanently ruin your brain chemistry. Oh, that’s just me? Well that’s okay, at least you might get some entertainment and insight into some works you may have considered reading while you watch me hurt myself. You can blame the rest of the QTL staff on allowing me this indulgence. Anyway, with its fourth book being released in physical form later this month (already out on audible), I decided I should unnecessarily and aggressively dig into why I don’t like The Bobiverse by Dennis Taylor.
The Bobiverse is a series of science fiction novels that follows one, well actually many, Bob Johanssons as they traverse the local star systems around the Sol system as Von Neumann probes. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Bob Johansson was a computer programmer looking to live the rest of his life enjoying it, when he was struck by a car and killed. Decades into the future, he finds his consciousness has been uploaded into a computer by a theocratic American government, known as FAITH. If he does not comply with their demands to be loaded into a self replicating space probe, he will be deleted, so of course he goes along with their game. Unfortunately, this puts him in competition with other countries with similar programs and he’ll have to play catchup. Worlds are at stake, and honestly who could pass up the opportunity to explore the galaxy as a near immortal probe?
Interestingly, I enjoyed the first book, We Are Legion, when we read it for the site’s book club many moons ago. It had an interesting premise, and while the writing isn’t anything to brag about, Taylor kept the tone light and fun while dealing with the potential destruction of the world. I got annoyed with the sci fi pop culture references, but that’s always a problem for me (*cough cough Ready Player 1+2 cough cough*). There were interesting explorations into how the probes could replicate, and the ways in which a person with a programmer’s skill set could use those skills to their advantage if they became the computer. It tended to focus on the Bobs I was uninterested in, but the book showed a decent amount of potential for a fun, somewhat light sci-fi romp filled with pop culture references most fans would enjoy.
Bob is a generally lackluster protagonist that has moments of fun revelation. All of his emotions are attached to pop culture references of the science fiction kind, which has its charms, but is ultimately shallow. The books are written from a first person perspective from the different Bobs as they pursue their individual projects. This perspective tends to be more limiting than it is enlightening, and it often reinforces the more lackluster aspects of the Bobs’ personalities instead of highlighting their differences. I realize that in some ways, this does depend on one’s own mileage with Bob, and his many counterparts, but I also find it disconcerting that I intensely loathed Bob by the end of the series, without any internal strife within the character to point to. I recognize that it’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted, but there is a power dynamic at play in the books that goes unrecognized. So let’s unearth it and ruin people’s fun, shall we?
So, the question is: who is Bob? Well, as stated, he is a computer programmer, uploaded into a spacefaring computer, and he happens to like a lot of science fiction media. When he creates new instances of himself, there are slight variations, but not much else. They are mostly named for characters in Bob’s pantheon of “good media,” and are differentiated by aesthetic differences through the creation of their own virtual environments and which project they prefer to work on. They all reference the same media, make the same jokes and laugh at each other’s references in a weird self reinforcing bubble. The different projects offer a little bit of depth, but honestly they just feel like most science fiction fans dreams of “if I were in charge of a space project.” That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not made interesting by Bob’s internal monologuing or external conversations with his other instances.
This is exacerbated by the fact that most of his additions to the wonders of the galaxy are just bland and not insightful. Rarely do you get a full explanation of what you’re seeing through Bob’s eyes as much as you are getting what he’s feeling. On top of that, his feelings are most often expressed through pop culture references, so if you don’t have that info somewhere in your grey matter hard drive, it’s hard to relate. Even when I had that storage, I couldn’t relate to Bob, because his main emotions were usually “awe” or “frustration/anger,” with no real in between. Sure, it’s technically development, in the way a suburban McMansion neighborhood is developed, just the same idea over and over again after having the interesting contours flattened out. It creates this weird dynamic where the way the audience interacts with the world of Bobiverse is by taking cues from Bob, instead of feeling alongside Bob.
This is further compounded by the intense similarity between the Bobs, as they offer no new perspective. They offer the same emotional range, sometimes with a different sense of pop culture. This leads to a very small amount of conflict between the Bobs. Whenever there is a mild disagreement, emphasis on the word mild, on priority, they just make a new Bob, and train him to do whatever they feel is necessary, and because he’s such a “good guy,” the new Bob plays along until it’s time for them to develop their own projects. Granted, this dynamic is purported to change in the fourth installment, but the first three novels did not really foreshadow this tension. Their projects don’t really get in the way of each other’s ambitions, and while some of them do some questionable things from my perspective, they all just kind of go along with it. It’s this weird cycle of, I’ll help you do your thing, just so I can go off and do my thing, and if you need more help you can make another Bob to handle it. There is a feeling that each one is just too important to help one another out with their tasks, unless there is something in it for them. It’s not that one Bob develops a God-complex, it’s that they all have a God-complex.
So what does the first person perspective have anything to do with all of that? Well, to me, it hides the fact that in this universe, Bob is God. Instead of recognizing the power he wields over the fate of humanity, it paints him as a nice guy who just would rather enjoy his media, but everyone’s problems keep getting in his way. The only perspective you get is that of the Bobs, no one else. Sure, you get conversations between him and the corporeal humans of Earth, but since you see them through his eyes, they are whiny brats who want things from him. And since there is basically no tangible difference between the Bobs’ perspectives, they all reinforce each other, creating a bubble. This framing centers Bob first and foremost in every situation. It becomes his interests that matter, not the people he’s interacting with. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Good character stories can come from a self-centered first person narrator. But Bob feels anything but that, and the reinforcement of other Bob’s harboring similar opinions and attitudes only strengthens the feeling.
Now, a lot of what I just said is a lot of “yeah, no duh. It’s a first person perspective you ignorant reviewer,” but hear me out. The problem is not so much the point of view, so much as the lack of exterior influence on said perspective. There are no characters who really oppose Bob in a way that allows them to affect his position on one matter or another. Sure, he has to deal with the Brazilian probes, or argue with the leaders of the pockets of survivors, but he has all the power. He has the ability to choose whether people live or die, and prioritizes their chances at survival based on his emotions first, then his abilities. Characters have to acquiesce to his demands or suffer consequences. Now, there aren’t many instances in which Bob actually acts on his frustrations with the different regional leaders, but the sentiment hangs in the air because he can act on them. To pull from a well known cultural phenomenon, “it’s the implication.” Every poor interaction is filtered through Bob’s eyes, and he gets to joke with himself “wouldn’t it just be easier if I just left them there to die,” and another Bob pipes up and laughs with him as said leader is left hanging on hold while they work out a “real solution” to the problem. What makes it even more apparent is that the few people who are within Bob’s good graces don’t demand or ask anything of him. They are seen as practical, even if the only basis for that reasoning is they are a long lost descendant, or in some cases just being white. There is even a storyline in which he allows for a human woman scientist to upload her brain into a probe because she likes him. In the light that I read these stories, there is a grim practicality to the way he handles problems. If people end up being helped, well, he’s just a nice guy and no one can disparage him.
I will admit that this is a very aggressive take on the series. I had a strong reaction to reading it, and it’s stuck with me through the years. I do plan on reading Heaven’s River, and I probably won’t like it, but that’s my cross to bear. If I ruined your fun with the series, I’m not sorry. If you don’t like this reading of it, that’s cool too. All I’m saying is that if you wanted to enjoy a series about the exploration of the universe, why read a series where the main character has the only say in what should be awe inspiring to you – and bases it entirely on the author’s taste in older media. If you want a morality tale that deals with humans uplifting a nascent species of aliens, why read a book that outright references the prime directive before blasting past it without any real qualms. These books feel written in a way that means you’ll love them or you’ll hate them, as if readers themselves are trying to get in Bob’s good graces to ascend their corporeal forms. There is better science fiction out there than a boomer getting their brain uploaded into a computer to relive the glory days of 20th century science fiction.
I hate missing books. Sometimes they just come out during a crowded release season, or I’m feeling too burnt out to give the book its proper due. Whatever the case, there is a satisfaction you feel when you finally get to it regardless of the book’s quality. However, there are those perfect moments, when your anticipation is rewarded and the story is more than you could have dreamed. Such is the case with this book. The cover was alluring with its grey negative space punctured by the red space suit, and the large yellow block lettering for the title. Its synopsis pulled me in closer and whispered its potential for dark secrets into my ear. The Outside, by Ada Hoffman, is a monster of a book that capitalizes on its premise and left me needing more.
The story follows Yasira Shien, an autistic scientist on the verge of inventing a new energy drive. In the midst of an experiment, the device explodes, allowing Yasira to see beyond the limits of her reality. However, the space station is destroyed and her fellow scientists are killed in the accident, and she is brought before the AI Gods, who shepherd mankind, and her work is deemed heretical. For penance, they offer her the chance to serve Nemesis, the god who hunts heretics and keeps humanity safe from the Outside. But Yasira wouldn’t hunt anyone, instead she needs to bring home her mentor in order to please Nemesis. As her search progresses, however, she begins to question the nature of her reality and begins to doubt who has her best interests at heart.
This book was quite the ride, annihilating my expectations. I don’t even know where to begin, because there are so many goodies packed in. The characters are top notch, the story is thrilling, the horror elements are creepy, and the way Hoffman handles her themes is just…magical. I think I’m also burying the lead on this one, but the lovecraftian horror is…out of this world. I couldn’t help it, this book just makes me want to sing about it, and if I had a singing voice, you’d be hearing this instead of reading it.
Let’s get beyond the gush, though, and highlight what makes me love this book. First off, Hoffman’s take on AI Gods guiding humanity through space is fantastic. There is a deep history here that carries a sense of weight, and the various characters really feel like they live there. The Gods themselves, while virtually all powerful, need humans and their souls in order to continue existing and projecting their miracles. There is this foreboding sense too that they want humanity to develop a specific way, allowing them to experiment in limited ways, but also restricting their own benevolence to avoid coddling. They maintain a sense of order through a structured hierarchy involving angels and other servants. These servants are, more often than not, augmented humans who have become more machine than human. Akavi is one of Nemesis’ angels, and he’s an utter delight as he tries to get Yasira to bring him to her former mentor through whatever means are at his disposal.
Hoffman utilizes this premise to maximum effect in regards to character, story and themes. I don’t want to get into too much detail about one particular thing for two reasons. One, the story itself is just a joy to read blind. Two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every piece is like a gear in an intricate clock, winding through an elegant dance that encompasses the whole story. The push and pull on Yasira as she does Nemesis’ bidding while wrestling with the mind-opening teachings of her former mentor is astonishing. Every plot point felt like a new door being opened into understanding everything else that came before it while also breaking down your understanding of Hoffman’s world. It was enchanting, and I was enthralled from beginning to end. An end which synthesized everything before it and feels complete in its own respect.
There are a few issues I had with the book, but they are mostly small and not worthy of a deeper dive. They weren’t fundamental problems that slowed the ticking of the clock and rarely pulled me out of the experience. It’s a hard novel to dissect because it works on the grander scale that the little pieces get subsumed by the whole. It feels like reading about the inner workings of Big Ben and then going to see it and all your knowledge about it is overtaken by awe, allowing you to appreciate it on all of its levels. I truly got lost in this book, and I can’t wait to read more from this series. So open your door and then your mind, it’s time to go to The Outside.
Alright, I am finally ready to tackle a “review” on The Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi. As much as I’ve wanted to review these books on their own, I feel the best approach to talking about these novels is at a series level. When I tried writing about them individually, I wanted to focus on a bunch of small things that felt off about the metaphor/allegory. I wanted to talk about how the books weren’t as funny as I expected, and how Scalzi wrote them wrong. The thing is, everytime I did it, I knew I was also lying to myself and anyone who would read the review. As a whole, the series is still a fun read, with easily digestible themes that make sense. I didn’t love the books, but I didn’t hate them. I really enjoyed The Collapsing Empire but liked the successive books less. I don’t really want the rest of the piece to be an attack. After all, I really like Scalzi as an author. He has this ability to make big, grand, sweeping ideas about the human condition and culture into accessible narratives about regular people in extraordinary situations. He never feels as if he’s talking down to the reader, and always feels like he’s having fun along with you. He always felt like he’s on the couch cracking jokes with you, instead of there trying to be the witty, funny man in the center of the room. That magic is still there in The Interdependency, but I feel as if sometimes I didn’t get to see the forest for the trees.
What is The Interdependency?
This trilogy (comprising The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox) is John Scalzi’s take on climate change in the form of a political space opera. It follows a future humanity that lives in semi self-sustaining habitats among the stars. These habitats are spread out across dozens if not hundreds of different star systems, all connected by the Flow. The Flow is a bit confusing, but a simple representation would be to think of it as rivers in space. Some rivers lead from one system to another, facilitating trade between the different space stations. In the middle of all these streams sits the Hub, the seat of the empire through which all trade is channeled. At the end of the streams lies the planet End, a backwater where mostly criminals are sent and no real effort to build civilization has been attempted. End has many Flow streams in and only one Flow stream out, and it leads directly to the Hub.
To make full use of the Flow, The Interdependency was formed: a complex series of agreements that allows certain houses and families to monopolize one specific commodity and trade it throughout the systems. It creates a system in which everyone is dependent on each other to survive, given the vast physical distances between the systems that can only be reasonably traveled via the Flow. Faster than light travel does not exist, and ships are only stocked with what they need to get from point A to point B. However, this system is threatened when the Flow is disrupted, and streams start disappearing. Entire systems are about to be left stranded, and the empire known as The Interdependency is about to collapse.
John Scalzi has built one of the more interesting, complex, and yet easily recognizable analogues to our climate crisis. There are a few places where there is not exactly a direct correlation, but it doesn’t really cause issues. He does a really good job of presenting it, though in some cases it’s a bit… easy? I’m looking at you Marce, giving the school kids a lesson as they’re on a field trip. But also that’s the point, it’s supposed to be easy; Scalzi wields a sledgehammer like a chisel and I love it. The first book feels expressly written to set up the Interdependency as an idea and show you the grander working theory without diving into too many details most people might get turned off by. He accomplishes this by building off of science fiction touchstones, adding his own flavor to it and making them more relatable to modern tastes. Specifically the house system within the Interdependency feels very much like Dune, but also very much like multinational Corporations in the real world, while also being its own distinct entity. There are rivalries and attempts to merge families for greater trade power, all in the name of supporting and propagating the system, keeping humanity going, while exclusively seeking profit. Scalzi does not do subtle, and in all honesty, this heavy-handed approach absolutely fucks. The best part is the first book ends with a question, what if the Interdependency is a lie? I mean he just sets this whole thing up and then straight up tells you, “yeah, it’s bullshit.” Part of me wants to be like “duh,” but he makes it meaningful. And even now, thinking about it I still get some chills because of how incredibly clear he is about what the Interdependency really represents. I don’t think he’ll win any awards for the mechanics of how his information is delivered, but man, he is not screwing around with his actual world. Some of this is unfortunately lost in the later books, but when Scalzi shows up, he shows up.
The plot is fairly straightforward and follows three key figures: the newly anointed Emperox Cardenia, a shy, young, dorky Flow physicist named Marce, and the ruthless merchant named Kiva Lagos. Marce is trying to find his way from End to the Hub so he can alert Cardenia of the coming troubles. However, he is being stalked and hunted by the Nohamapetans, a house rival to that of Kiva Lagos. Lagos seems to be his only chance at getting to the hub intact with his data about the future of the Flow. The Collapsing Empire offers a rollicking good start as the story is centered around this data about the Flow, and the feeling that if it’s lost, bad things are going to happen.
However, beyond the first book, the plot starts to meander in a way I found frustrating. Cardenia spends most of the book internally questioning the legitimacy of the Interdependency while Marce is set off on a fact finding mission. Kiva spends her time maneuvering through trade politics, but without really revealing much about her or the Interdependency. The fact that Empire mostly felt like a build up to The Consuming Fire, and then Fire just feels like people sitting around waiting for Marce to get back from his adventure, did not quell my annoyance. It truly felt like a disappointment especially since there were a few trails that were left open by Scalzi.
While it was starting to feel thin in Fire, The Last Emperox really stretched out what was left of the plot to a herculean degree. There was a distinct lack of forward momentum going into the third book, and while the opening chapter was funny, it was a harbinger of things to come. It opened with a retelling of the second book, from two other characters not involved in the plot. And while it exhibited Scalzi’s panache for witty and charming dialogue, it just told me what I already knew. The rest of the book was not much different either as it just felt like three or four characters all going through the same events, but each telling their side of a political kidnapping. And it just didn’t do anything for me. There were no stakes. It just felt like I was watching a rehash of the second book but with Benny Hill music blasting in the background, and then someone comes in and tells you the ending in a monologue. It’s unfortunate. After some beautiful twirls, fancy flips and occasionally daring acrobatics, Scalzi failed to stick the landing.
Okay, so I had trouble with the plot, but what about the characters? Well, in typical Scalzi fashion, his characters are charming as hell. Marce is probably my least favorite as he just doesn’t really have much to do beyond be dorky, and know things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as he’s more sidelined by Cardenia and Kiva, but I wish there was a little more to him than “science boy” and “romantic interest to Cardenia.” It’s cute, and it’s a fun way to sideline a guy for the more powerful women, but considering he’s a major contributor to the plot, he was stuck in the middle and it made him awkward.
Kiva and Cardenia are an absolute blast, though, and they work well as cooperative foils. Cardenia is reluctant and unsure of herself, even as the most powerful person in the human realm. Kiva, however, is a titan of self assurance, even to her own detriment. She uses the word “fuck” like the word “the,” and while it can be annoying at times, there are a lot of shining moments from it that make her memorable. My biggest complaint is there isn’t any real tangible growth to either of them. They never feel like they could be wrong, nor are they ever wrong about anything. They’re not exactly one step ahead of their antagonists, they just end up doing better than them by trying harder and holding their cards ever closer to their chests – it doesn’t feel earned. It built a real dissonance in my brain as these likeable people just turned inwards from the reader as they tried to accomplish their goals. They’re not deep, but they’re fun in the ways they should be, and Cardenia is incredibly relatable. I just wish they had a little more to do.
Honestly, this was the biggest hook for me after, “Scalzi has another space opera.” It’s probably also why I felt mostly disappointed with the series as a whole, even though it was fun to read. Scalzi very pointedly makes it clear that these books are about climate change, and our inability to act since the system itself is outright causing the issue, and needs to be destroyed in order to prevent disaster. If he stuck the landing on anything, it’s setting this up so transparently in a digestible, interesting, and entertaining way, and it makes my little heart sing. However, where I take issue is that the follow through feels messy. My biggest problem with it stems from his inability to take the allegory beyond “it’s weird how everything is set up this way, huh?” In hindsight, it all makes sense, trying to parse through the metaphor, and seeing that there is no silver bullet to a problem of this scale. It’s not just getting the data and showing the world there’s a problem, if the system is expressly set up to be able to ignore it until it implodes and people die. But when I was reading it, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t get kicked in the teeth by the middle or ending of the trilogy, the way I did by the beginning. It didn’t point to the helplessness of individuals, especially those outside the machinations of power, nor did it really make fun of the Benny Hill style politics of people trying to take advantage of the situation. Instead, it felt like kicking the can down the road and installing a deus ex machina to shepherd humanity into a new age. It was just a different, longer silver bullet, and that made me sad and angry.
I’m not trying to tear down Scalzi. He was very easily one of the top reasons I really got into reading for fun. He has a special knack for making the BIG IDEAS of science fiction accessible, entertaining, and relatable in ways I only dream of. And he does it in a way that is not condescending. However, I think sometimes he gets lost in making people think, he forgets what they should be thinking about, or how they should be thinking about it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I wish more writers had that knack for questioning our world, within their own worlds. But I also wish he questioned his own world a little more deeply and maybe found a better solution beyond deus ex machina. Because we’re running out of time in the real world too, and there really is no silver bullet.
I am not equipped to write this review. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone would be. I mean maybe if I had an English degree and an understanding of western literature beyond high school, I might be more confident, but we work with what we have. My desire to read House of Leavesstarted a few years ago, back when book club was still a thing we got together for, and House of Leaves popped up when I searched for a horror book to suggest. The premise intrigued me: a house full of secrets that is larger on the inside than the outside. A tale about the deep siren’s call of obsession that entwines the reader’s need for answers with the protagonists’. Fortunately, for the club, and my budding reading habits, this book was vetoed. It lingered in the back of my mind for years until right before COVID hit the U.S. I saw a single copy of it in the bookstore and the longing to read it surged in my chest. Of course I purchased it, and then when I opened it, I saw the madness within and shelved it. I had too many spring books to review, sothis had to wait a few more months. October rolled around and ‘twas the season, so I cracked this tome open and ventured into the unknown.
For those who don’t know, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a modern horror/surrealist piece of literature that defies any real description. It’s a story several times removed from the story featured in the synopsis. Essentially, the book is a documentary about a family that buys a haunted house and explores its dark depths. It’s also the story of a blind man’s attempt to explain the documentary as it is, offering symbolic meaning and providing psychoanalysis through a series of footnotes that cover western mythology as well as critical reception of the film. This is then commentated on by yet another man, who happens upon the manuscript after said blind man dies, and he discovers it while rummaging through the dead man’s apartment while drunk. It’s part textbook, part story, part diary, and all nightmare. It’s truly a monster of a book, and we haven’t even touched the formatting of the different sections that heighten the tension.
I can hear you now, “what the fuck are you on, trying to talk about this weird book?” Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I feel uncomfortable even recommending this book to anyone who isn’t already interested. In some ways I am driven by my obsession to talk about it so that I may find the end of the maze internally. There is something special about this book, and it gnawed at me until the very last page. I want others to experience it for themselves. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I had to sleep, work to make a living, and eat food so I could continue to read this book. It wormed its way into my brain, feeding on the ends of my neurons that weren’t dedicated to it. The obsession took hold of me like a rabid dog burying a bone. I felt connected to the book in a way I hadn’t really felt connected to a piece of fiction before. I needed to know every little detail. I wanted to satiate my curiosity while applauding my own intelligence for catching on. I wanted to be swept away, and my to be breath taken from my lungs when major revelations occurred. I yearned to know every detail of these people’s lives, know how they ticked, and understand why they were the way they were. And the book just fed my desires, making me think of my own experience in relation to Johnny Truant, the man who finds the manuscript. I craved to know how Johnny related to the Navidsons, the family who bought this home and set upon themselves the task of discovering its mysteries.
The formatting felt like a drug. I turned the book upside down, diagonal, sideways. I read pages while standing in front of a mirror. I read backwards through pages I had already read forwards. There was no challenge presented by the changing format I did not meet. I had to know everything. My boat had left the docks and I let the wind take me wherever it was blowing. The initial fear I felt when I gazed upon the complex maze of letters and words was replaced with the joy of exploration. I felt an intense desire to pick up every morsel left by the conglomerate of authors, worried that missing one little piece would degrade the effort put in. The changing landscape of the text only fueled this passion, giving the book a geography that is so rarely seen. The little cracks and crevices provided so many rewards, so many pats on the back, it was as addicting as it was fulfilling.
Until it wasn’t. There was a moment in the book where my hunger became an emptiness. I knew I needed to fill it, but the story was over. It just ended. The characters, the Navidsons, Johnny, the women Johnny talked to, all their lives just go on. There are no conventional conclusions to their story. There were one hundred fifty pages of appendices, full of letters, photographs, and scrap art. I just had to digest it all, and yet the rewards were missing. I read four hundred pages of the six hundred and fifty pages in a single sitting, and I felt dead. I spent roughly forty five minutes translating a code in one of the end letters. Once the book was over I just sat there. I asked myself, was it me? Did the book just lose its magic? Was I not getting it? Then I remembered one of the first pages of the book, in an iconic typewriter font, somewhat off center, the phrase This is not for you appears. And it all started to come together for me in a brilliant understanding and while that emptiness brought on by the book never really left me, I felt satisfied.
Again, I ask myself, and probably you too, dear reader, why do I bring up this book? Why am I giving you an outline of my experience? Describing my feeling about a book that defies explanation, or tidy description. A book that requires a larger than healthy level of effort, and a frankly ludicrous amount of buy in mentally. Something that isn’t quite fantasy, and not really science fiction either, and barely horror? Those words echo in my mind This is not for you, as I try to come up with a reason. This is not for you, This is not for you, This is not for you. And, maybe therein lies the answer.
Rating: House of Leaves – This is for me./10 -Alex
I’ve been meaning to check out Kameron Hurley’s recent work for a long time. I read The Mirror Empire back in 2015 and was immediately impressed by her ability to be brutal about violence and use her settings and worlds to convey sharp critiques while keeping her books fun. As I began to read more books, however, I never made my way back to her work, even though her ideas sounded intensely intriguing. Well this year, I decided to finally make time for Hurley’s work and starting with The Stars Are Legion (Legion), I made a great choice. Legion is a bombastic, weird, violent, and enheartening science fiction joyride.
Legion is a story about a society of all women, who live on living breathing shell worlds. These shell worlds are attached to each other by giant tentacles, and each world cannot survive on its own. The top of society lives near the exterior skin of these worlds, often leading raiding parties to take over and incorporate other worlds of the legion into their own. The levels below all have different cultures, understandings of the world around them and perceive their duties in different ways, scarcely believing anything exists more than two or three levels above them.
The reader follows Zan, a woman who wakes up to no memories and is immediately informed she is the savior of her people. Zan is told she will lead them to the Mokshi, a living planet that is able to escape the tendrils of the Legion and journey into space without fear of dying on it’s own. But, something is awry. As she comes to grips with her new reality and takes stock of her surroundings, she begins to get the distinct impression from the reactions and attitudes of the people around her that this has happened before. The person who feels closest to Zan, Jayd, seems to know more about Zan’s condition than she is letting on. It certainly doesn’t help that Jayd is the daughter of Empress Katazyrna, and is willing to do what is necessary to save her people. Is Zan the savior of the Katazyrna world, destined to lead them to the promised land of Mokshi, or is she just a pawn in the Empress Katazyrna’s game for more control of the Legion?
So let’s get this out of the way, I generally dislike amnesia as a form of introduction as it often feels like the easy way to hide information. Hurley manages to make the concept work, though, by both adding sinister undertones and not holding your hand when it comes to her worldbuilding. Unfortunately, I think it will lead to some readers bouncing right off, but I found it extremely compelling. Hurley gives just enough information about the world to let it build in your mind, to let the textures sink into your brain folds, and start to see it through your own eyes. The fact that everything, and I mean literally everything is made of flesh, sinew, blood and other various bodily focused materials slowly came to be realized, and it’s gross-out feel starts to subside. The lack of information dumps also allowed me to contextualize the world and think about how everything worked without it needing to be explained. I was free to think about what Hurley might be getting at by gradually fleshing out the world of the Legion. It’s an exciting form of worldbuilding that I’d love to see more of, allowing the more curious readers to really engage with the book.
While the worldbuilding, story and characters were all enjoyable and interesting in their own right, the most fascinating aspect to Hurley’s writing in this particular story is her themes. She has found a way to straddle the line of using a jackhammer on your skull to point out that there is more to the story than it’s surface presentation, while being subtle about what exactly she is trying to say. Much like the worldbuilding, she forces you as the reader to pick apart the little details, following them like a trail of breadcrumbs to the billboard at the end. She in some ways forces you to question her choices in the story, and question the systems at play. The little details aren’t interesting on their own, there is something else beyond it that makes it even more fascinating if you’re willing to ask “why?” Obviously you can read the book without tugging at those strings and still have a good time, but I strongly urge you take the opportunity to dive in.
However, while I found myself able to root out the morsels like a pig in a truffle laden forest, I do think the book requires a lot of buy-in from the reader. It’s a fast paced book that has a decent amount of action but there weren’t a whole lot of moments for reflection. There were times during dialogue heavy portions where I thought there would be a little more goading by Hurley to dig deeper into what she wants the reader to understand, but she sometimes just moves on. As I said previously, I don’t need hand holding, but at the same time, I never felt a moment where Hurley just slams the sledgehammer home to make her point. It creates an interesting dialogue with the reader, but doesn’t create a singular point of revelation in the story itself.
I had a great time reading Legion. I read the whole thing in less than two days. Hurley’s world is fascinating, allowing you question all of its details while making you think similarly about our own world. Her characters are interesting, even if they’re not super deep. Her themes run rampant, her metaphors take on new light as more and more of them are revealed. And while some people enjoy having things explained to them, I preferred Hurley’s method of letting the work speak for itself. If you’re looking for something strange, brutal, different from the science fiction you are used to, The Stars Are Legion is worth your time.
It’s really hard to avoid reading about the conditions that a lot of people are working under today. Before the pandemic it was already questionable, especially with the rise of the gig economy. But the pandemic, particularly in the United States, has brought a lot of those issues into sharp detail. So when I heard of a book about a group of women banding together to strike in the nineteenth century using magic, I was instantly sold. I know it’s not exactly a solution to our current predicaments (I wish it was), but because stories about solidarity are so rare, it’s important to read stories that focus on actually banding together. It’s a nice and (in my opinion) important break from the single good guy/girl protagonist who “wins” through sheer willpower. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is a book about such solidarity that scratches the surface of labor history in the Northeastern United States. It serves as an interesting exploration of these ideas but falls short in delivering a solid story.
Our storyfollows the exploits of women workers in the milltown of Lowell, Massachusetts, adding a fantastical flair to real life events of 1836. The two main characters are Judith, the ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, one who still practices the forgotten art of witchcraft. There is a budding romance between the two as they navigate the strike, facing opposition from management and helping to keep the other women involved. Magic isn’t a silver bullet in their schemes, so while Hannah practices, she still has to work to find the right spells to counteract the papercraft of capital. How can a young group of women succeed, when there have been several attempts before them? Will the magic be enough?
Promisingly, the book opens in media res, with the women performing magic during a strike planning session. There is a sense of wonder that fills the pages; the reader is introduced to the characters as they submit their hair to the collective spell. This spell would in essence form a magical bond of solidarity, preventing women from crossing the picket line at the promise of individual benefit from management. What I particularly enjoyed about the magic in Witches is how cleverly Malerich interweaved it into the class politics and machinations of capitalism. Setting Hannah up as someone who understood the basic tenets, but had to use her foundations to analyze and build new spells was really fun, and also fairly informative from a material analysis perspective (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Beyond the magic, however, I had a hard time connecting with the story, and I think that is mostly due to its length. Witches relies a lot on the historical aspect as a given, and people’s common understanding that working conditions in the nineteenth century were awful and extremely exploitative. There are tidbits here and there about the specifics of working conditions such as the kiss of death (in which women had to inhale the string through loops, thus inhaling the linens and dust, developing coughs), but I never got a general sense of their lives. While I understand that there probably was not much of a life outside of work in these conditions, I barely got a sense of who the women wanted to be outside work, or if they even saw the work as important. It was a fairly large cast of characters, centered around two particular women, but overall most of the characters barely had any defining traits even though they were often talked about in reverent and defining ways. I get that there is a very fine line to walk before you stray into anachronism, or modern progressive ideals showing up in historical fiction, but I had a hard time caring about the strike beyond my already pro-labor power tendencies. I’m not saying this had to be a “teachable moment” — it is fiction and deserves to be fun, I just mean that purely from a story standpoint I did not buy in. I think I expected historical fiction with a charming fantasy twist, but I just got the charming fantasy twist with historical labor trivia thrown in.
In the end it’s hard to say how much of this could be made more compelling with length, because I do think that’s my major complaint with the book. Witches is 120 pages, and so much is crammed into it. Everything moves so fast, there’s no time to appreciate the characters or their struggles. The texture of their lives feels missing, and while there are plenty of dissections of the book from a political perspective that are enlightening (if you are interested, I definitely recommend looking into them because there is a lot to learn about), I had trouble with it as a story. I wish it was a little less subtle, and had more “oomph” to the narrative. I still liked it and loved the way Malerich used magic in a grounded way to highlight how capitalism as a system functions. However, I wanted more from it, and maybe that’s a personal problem.
This year has been full of some genuinely fantastic novellas, and TOR has done an exceptional job of leading the charge. Novellas have such potential to be focused, and a lot of authors have recently showcased that potential in big ways. Novellas can be explosive and monumental and addicting. One that has stuck with me through the year, and I couldn’t help but re-read a couple of times due to the protests this summer and fall, is Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi. I wish I could find a way to distill how I feel about it into a single sentence, or even a review. I’ve attempted below, but this is easily one of the most subjective and gut feeling reviews I’ve written. Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is a laser focused story of anger, pain and revolution, and you should read it.
Riot Baby is the story of Ella and her brother Kev, two kids who grow up while black in an increasingly dystopian America. Ella witnesses her brother’s birth during the LA riots, after the officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted. Ella has a gift; she can see the future of those around her, and it’s filled with pain, suffering and death. She ends up leaving her family as her power grows, and Kev is thrown in jail. As they grow older, Ella is able to use her powers to take Kev mentally somewhere else and show him the world, but he slowly grows impatient, knowing she could level the prison and help him escape. Ella visits Kev while he’s in jail, reminding him she’s still there for him but unable to do anything about his predicament despite her powers. Meanwhile Kev lives day to day, trying to survive without succumbing totally and completely to the system.
There is no dancing around this, I loved Riot Baby. Onyebuchi drives through the story with purpose, using his disjointed structure to maximum effect. The story jumps back and forth between Ella and Kev, showing their individual experiences within America as it grows increasingly bleaker as they get older. Ella’s journey to understand her power, to learn to carry the knowledge she has of the future and shape it, is phenomenal. Kev’s time in prison is equally claustrophobic, pent up and hopeless, lending a sense of desperation and anger. Onyebuchi knows exactly when to switch between them to highlight their mirrored journeys and growing frustration with the tension between them.
While the bare bones of the story itself is a solid foundation, Onyebuchi’s writing style kept me enthralled and heightened the emotional impact of the siblings’ story. There is a brewing anger behind every sentence. An undercurrent of injustice rippled each page as Kev and Ella had to come to grips with the world they lived in. What I found so fascinating about the anger in Riot Baby is how incredibly right it felt. There is a fervor in it that grows in a raging crescendo towards the end of the book that is unavoidable, and it feels like a siren’s call. I initially read this in January, and felt it, and after this summer, it feels even more poignant on re-read after re-read.
The way Onyebuchi interweaves Ella’s powers into the history of Black America is poetic and righteous. It’s a casual reminder of our past, so much as it is a clarion call for a better future. Each scene is painted vividly, focusing on the people and how they are affected. Sure places, and things play an important role, but how these people’s lives are affected by the system are highlighted. Whether it be children or adults, men or women, they can’t escape the ever watchful eyes of the state. It’s an exercise in empathy, an empathy rooted in a passionate rage at the injustice of the system, that I’ve rarely seen and Onyebuchi pulls it off with aplomb.
It’s hard to talk about this book as a book. I could go into the technicals a little more, and maybe dig into whether the characters work or not. But I honestly feel like I’d be doing Onyebuchi and Riot Baby a disservice to break it down so mechanically, when it’s so purposefully full of emotion. There is such a powerful whirlwind in it’s pages, howling to those who read it. I recommend Riot Baby wholeheartedly. You should read it with others and talk about it. Be galvanized by it. It’s a story, sure, but it’s the perfect representation of art speaking a truth most should know by now. Let it speak to you, so you don’t remain silent about it afterwards.
Sometimes you read a book, and you’re not entirely sure how you feel about it. It’s hard to put into words how you would recommend it. Over time, you realize your gut feelings are just going to be the way you feel about it for a while. And it’s not necessarily the book’s fault; it’s more your expectations and taste that make it feel off. This book is one of those books for me, something I enjoyed, but after it was all said and done, I had questions. A Pale Light In The Black, by K.B. Wagers, is a competent book that focuses on its characters and their personal journeys, sometimes to the detriment of worldbuilding and plot.
The book follows the day-to-day goings-on of the Zuma’sGhost, a ship within the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G for short). They’re a sort of space coast guard, set up a few hundred years into a future after a great collapse in civilization. Maxine Carmichael is trying to escape the grasp of her powerful Navy family, joins Neo-G, and is assigned to the Zuma’s Ghost after the crew’s well liked lieutenant is promoted to commander in the far reaches of a newly established colony. On top of her newbie status, Carmichael is also a member of the family that controls Life-Ex, a life extension drug that can be most easily obtained through service in one of the branches of the Earth military. Can Carmichael integrate herself within Zuma’s Ghost and help them to keep their reputation?
I enjoyed Pale Light, but I was not enthralled with it. It’s an extremely good cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day. Wagers is good at character dynamics. Wagers’ heartfelt moments feel warm and fuzzy, and they capture the feeling of awkward situations super well. I also enjoyed that while Carmichael had a lot to prove, the rest of the team wasn’t overly hostile to her in the beginning. Sure there was tension, and it ebbed and flowed based on their situation, but everyone was dedicated to making the new team work. Wagers then focused the character’s dynamics on how they could help each other bring out their strengths, and highlight each other’s weaknesses, without having a single overly determined character breakthrough prejudice. Wagers side steps all of the normal “new kid on the block” drama, giving the characters all a chance to grow on equal footing. It was delightful and refreshing.
Where the book fell flat for me, however, is that some of these character moments felt they should have been punctuated by events in the plot, and they just weren’t. They still packed a punch for most of the book because Wagers made their daily routines, day to day drudgery of being on a ship, and anxiety about the future feel important. But it came up short for me in the later sections of the book, when everything the crew had been working for felt as if it had been bypassed. Most of the book is spent training for a competition with the other branches of the military so the Neo-G can show they can hang with the big kids. When the story reaches the big games, though, it’s just a snapshot of all the events the characters participate in. In some ways, I’m okay with this as it feels like Wagers is pulling a Rocky, it doesn’t matter that they won or lost, just that they pulled together and competed in a way that satisfied them. It’s charming, but it also feels stilted because these moments in the games don’t feel big. It just felt unfinished to me.
I also was a bit dissatisfied with the worldbuilding in Pale Light. I like complexity, so take these feelings with a grain of salt. It feels incomplete and I can’t tell if that’s because there is more to come, more reckoning in the future, or if it’s built just enough to make the story work as is. There is a societal collapse, and a few hundred years later, humans are in space. How they got there is a mystery, what caused the collapse is a mystery (though it’s somewhat implied that what we’re doing now is the problem), and why humans decided to create a space navy, army, marine corps instead of just the Neo-G is unanswered. It didn’t really ruin my reading experience that these things were just there, taken for granted. But those questions remained, and still remain.
I want to reiterate, despite the problems I had with the book, I still enjoyed myself. Wagers does an excellent job of ingraining the reader with the day to day life of the crew and their interpersonal tensions. If I were less picky about certain things, I would have loved this book on the characters alone. However, I didn’t fully love it, and if you can put those other issues aside, then you’ll get a warm story about people working together, and dealing with their problems in an ebb and flow. Friendships aren’t built on overcoming huge character differences, or by making grand gestures. It’s the small things, day in and day out. It’s the little frustrations and the tiny bits of attention we give to each other at just the right moment. Wagers captured that beautifully, and made sure it applied to everyone in the book. So if you’re looking for a breezy read that fills you with the warmth of a found family, A Pale Light in the Black is for you.
Axiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.
Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.
As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.
First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.
Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.
Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.
If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.