Devices and Desires – Unalluring

710abl-mp8lAfter very positive experiences with a number of recent books by K.J. Parker, I decided to dive into the far back year of 2006 and read one of his larger, better known series – specifically his Engineer Trilogy. The first book in the set is Devices and Desires, and Parker describes the series as (and I am paraphrasing here) “a love story in which tens of thousands die. A story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. And he does them through the science of engineering.” I was intrigued, as I studied engineering and physics in college, and my previous track record with Parker buoyed up my hopes that this would be a knock out of the park hit for all kinds of readers. What I found instead is a very strange, very divisive, and very dense book that feels fairly divorced from the recent Parker novels I have read. I strongly suspect that a small number of people will consider this one of their top books ever, but the vast majority of readers are going to feel like they just read an Ikea manual.

The plot of Devices and Desires is such: In Parker’s world there is a technologically advanced city known as Mezentia. This Republic could probably conquer the world with their advanced weaponry and tech, but their bloated bureaucracy grinds all progress and planning to a halt. They have a set of strict guidelines for their citizens when it comes to making anything, and to alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes, our protagonist, finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery to improve its efficacy – because he is a genius. He is forced to use his considerable brilliance to flee Mezentia to neighboring countries. There, he begins a one-man campaign of terror to burn down the known world and its rules in order to be reunited with his beloved family.

Let’s take a quick look at what I liked about the book. The plot, in theory, is interesting. The book is mostly about Ziani going to other rival nations of Mezentia and giving them critical pieces of technology in order to bring them up to fighting speed and destabilize his home country. This tech isn’t just weapons; it includes everything from agriculture tech to joints for machinery. I enjoy how the prime drive of our protagonist is reuniting with his family, it was a nice change of pace. I like the humor in the book. The sections in Mezentia, in particular, are fun as we get to see this technologically advanced powerhouse get flattened by tiny petty people just being counterproductive cogs in the giant machine. I think that the themes are extremely on point. The book does a powerful job exploring the ideas like manufacturing, how things work, how important engineering is in warfare, and more. Parker definitely did a tremendous job exploring the ideas he set out to investigate.

Unfortunately, that is roughly where my praise stops and my complaints begin. First, while the themes are on point, they are also extremely boring. The book has the details and pacing of a 300-page manual in a language you don’t speak. This adherence to themes is a consistent aspect in Parker’s writing. When he commits to a theme, he commits to a theme. But the book is simply too large (and there are two more after Devices and Desires) to spend this much time explaining at a glacial pace how the vent for a blacksmith shop works. I thought I cared before I read this book…turns out I don’t. It was really fun for 150 pages, mildly entertaining for the next 150, and then for the next 300 I wanted to put my head in a smelter.

Then we have the characters. I use ‘characters’ liberally here because despite there being about 20 POVs, I only really saw two characters: Ziani and everyone else. I really cannot remember the name of any other character other than Ziani, and I only read this book 2 months ago. The personalities of everyone other than Ziani just run together depending on which country they are from. They all think and feel the same way and it all blends into this morass of sameness. Then we have Ziani, who is basically just a monster. His reaction to being separated from his family is to reduce the standing population of the world by 50% – instead of inventing a way to reunite with his family without ceaseless slaughter. He is generally unpleasant to be around, grating against every single character (and me the reader) he talks to. I think I was supposed to resonate with him as a man vs. the world, but instead, I found myself hoping he would get over himself and recoil at the horrors he was unleashing (I normally would say ‘realized the horrors he is unleashing’, but this little shit is very much aware what he’s doing). Finally, Ziani is narrated like he’s some sort of genius playing 4D chess with the world, and instead of making him feel cool, it is the nail in the coffin, making him just completely intolerable to be around. I hope book two starts with him falling into a woodchipper and is replaced with his more empathetic brother, Yiani, who always had the hots for Ziani’s wife.

Although I had issues with it, Devices and Desires certainly is a unique book – for better and worse. If you think you really like learning the technical details of a world down to the nuts and the bolts and have a hard-on for manufacturing you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I do not recommend you check out Devices and Desires – Parker has written much more enjoyable books that don’t require nearly the time investment.

Rating: Devices and Desires – 4.5/10
-Andrew

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Mostly Void, Partially Stars – Shines Bright In The Dark

41mlamwkznl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am a latecomer to Welcome to Night Vale, much to my shame. If you are unfamiliar with the famous podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a humor-based series about a small American town replete with supernatural happenings. The character who narrates the series is a small local radio jockey who does his best to report on the happenings and people of Night Vale. His delivery is dry as a desert and as ridiculous as possible.

The podcast has been going on for years, and there are hundreds of episodes, but the team has also put out a few books (the first of which is Mostly Void, Partially Stars) that contain written versions of sets of episodes. I decided to investigate both the first collection (MVPS) and listen to a number of episodes after I finished so that I could both review it as a novel and see if I missed anything by sticking to the written word. I discovered that both forms of the story are phenomenal, definitely worth your time, but have different strengths that will appeal differently depending on your taste.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars’ brilliance comes from two places – the masterful humor and the anally consistent worldbuilding that ties it all together. It makes the story something more than a series of jokes. The situations and scenarios of Night Vale are bizarre and the deadpan delivery is impossible not to laugh at. The first episode of the series talks about a new dog park that was recently installed by the town council that no one is allowed to enter, look at, be near for extended periods of time, and does not contain dogs. The delivery of this information made me laugh out loud while reading, which is quite rare for me.

But the real magic of the story is that there IS a story. While each chapter/episode of Night Vale feels like a standalone joke, there is a very clear through-line to all of them that starts to quite rapidly build a cohesive world, set of characters, and plot. It’s easy to use outlandishness to elicit a laugh, but it’s hard to do it while also being extremely consistent and meticulous in your outlandishness. I was very surprised when I started to get a very strong sense of the town and its inhabitants and started adjusting to the new normal of how they behaved and went about their day. That dog park I mentioned in the previous paragraph felt like a complete throwaway at the start of the series, but it continues to resurface and get updates as the series progresses until you are hoping that the next episode will contain a new hint of what the dog park actually is.

As to the differences between reading the books vs. listening to the podcasts, there are a few things to keep in mind. I ended up liking the books more because I liked the control of the pacing and digestion of the content. There is something about being able to control how I took the story in that made it resonate better with me and upped my enjoyment. However, there are elements of the podcast that you definitely do lose when reading instead of listening. Each episode of the podcast has musical components done by a huge range of artists and they really do add a lot to the ambiance. In addition, the delivery of the narrators in the podcast is masterful, and no voices I made up in my head will top the talented people that were selected to voice the characters. Which of these methods of consuming Night Vale most appeals will vary by individual, but I definitely do recommend you try it no matter which you fancy. You can’t go wrong.

The only hang-up I had with Night Vale was I found it hard to binge, despite wanting to very badly. The standalone nature of the episodes means they are ideal to be consumed here and there or once in a while, not in one 5 hour sitting. Discovering answers to the riddles of the town requires a very long term investment that will see you spending tens to hundreds of hours consuming content. That’s not a bad thing, as the content is very good (and funny) – it just means that if you are looking for quick answers, you are going to be disappointed.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is fantastic. It was funny, weird, and had a surprising amount of depth. I know most of you have likely already tried, and enjoyed, this cult phenomenon already – but those of you who haven’t should give it a shot. I now have over a hundred podcast episodes in my library waiting to listen too so I suddenly find myself looking forward to car rides in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Rating: Mostly Void, Partially Stars – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Across the Green Grass Fields – Series Meets Banality

Yet another wayward child discovers a world beyond her wildest dreams in Across the Green Grass Fields. Seanan McGuire’s sixth novella installment in the Wayward Children series hobbled across the finish line, leaving me to draw a personal conclusion: it’s time for me to part with this series. It may not be that time for you, though, and that’s okay. 

But before I dive into the “why” of it all, feel free to peruse my reviews of the previous five installments:

Maybe you’ve been around for a while and have already seen those reviews on the site. Or maybe you read them for the first time just now. Or maybe you clicked them and scrolled to see how I rated each installment. Whichever method you chose, you’ll have found that I generally enjoy Wayward Children, at least enough for those scores to average out to an 8. I stand by those scores, and I think there’s something very special about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children universe. It’s just not special for me anymore. 

We’re here to talk about Across the Green Grass Fields, though, and this is the book that finally sparked some much-needed introspection about the series. 

Regan is different. The other girls in her school are growing up faster than she is, blossoming in ways her body doesn’t yet comprehend. Her “best friend” Laurel sets forth strict limitations on what it means to be a girl, and anyone who does something too weird or boyish gets ostracized and isolated thanks to Laurel’s heavy restrictions. Regan has been able to fly under Laurel’s radar while keeping her intense love of horses relatively separate from the relationship. But as the other girls start to hit puberty, Regan’s differences from the other girls appear more starkly, and she asks her parents if there’s something wrong with her. They reveal that she is intersex, and that she won’t experience puberty in the same way that her classmates will. Regan confides this in Laurel, who immediately turns on Regan and calls her a “boy.” Regan runs from school and stumbles into another world through a forested doorway. In the Hooflands, Regan’s beloved equine friends rule: centaurs, kelpies, perytons, and unicorns inhabit the world. She falls in with a pack of centaurs for five years all the while slowly allowing her former life in our world to fade. 

This narrative arc shares many similarities with other Wayward Children installments. “Misfit child finding a gateway to a new world” is quite literally the premise of the series, though there’s always a healthy portion of “everything isn’t what it seems.” All of this rings true in Across the Green Grass Fields, but for me it felt like a veil had been lifted and I saw the series in a different way. 

Regan’s adventures in the Hooflands didn’t hook me. The world is packed with equine beings, and beyond simple facts and limitations (Centaurs and other hoofed creatures can’t climb trees, for example), they don’t feel any different from humans. You can read this as a commentary, a revelation that differences make us unique and lovable rather than lesser. But in Across the Green Grass Fields, this results in the Hooflands feeling more like a slightly altered reflection of our world rather than a completely new one. That aura cements itself even further as more of the world is revealed. McGuire does a lot of telling: there’s a Fair where centaurs sometimes meet with their husbands. You can buy pies and food and other treats at the Fair. You can trade goods. But precious few details actually serve to flesh out the world. The Hooflands becomes a half-complete fill-in-the-blank. I had the same issue with In an Absent Dream to a lesser extent, but Across the Green Grass Fields just didn’t sit right. 

I felt the same way about Regan. Talk about wasted potential. She’s an intersex protagonist who is obviously struggling to cope with her identity, but as soon as she reaches the Hooflands, much of that storyline disappears and she instead fully immerses herself into the world of the Centaurs and unicorns. All the while, there’s mention that Regan, as a human, must see the Queen, but only when it’s time. Humans only come to the Hooflands when the world needs saving, or so the legends say. But Regan and her flock of centaurs simply hide from the Queen for five years. After that time’s up, Regan seeks an audience with the Queen, who nobody has ever actually seen, and knots are tied up with rather hilarious speed. The novella rushes to a conclusion faster than any of its predecessors, and it left me wanting. 

Some of these gripes will inevitably be personal. If you’re enamored with horses and similar beasts, you may positively love this story. If you enjoy McGuire’s quickfire novella approach to the series, you’ll likely want to keep reading. But for me, Across the Green Grass Fields highlighted problems that I was previously content to overlook in the previous books: slow/minimal worldbuilding, compact narratives, and thin characters. That’s not to say all of those things are true for every Wayward Children book. But one or more of those problems appears in each one. The simple but big realization that happened for me was this: I’m reading these to add to my total book count for the year and not because I actually want to. And when that’s the feeling you get from a series, it’s time to migrate to greener pastures. 

An unconventional review? Absolutely. And I did that on purpose to make it abundantly clear that if you’ve enjoyed Wayward Children up to and including this book, you should by all means continue. There’s some fantastic work from McGuire here, and the book community’s love for this series is often well-earned. I’m no longer the audience for these books, though, and for that reason, it’s time to head back toward the epic fantasies I adore the most. As McGuire’s doorways all say, you have to “Be Sure.” And in this case, I am. 

Farewell, Wayward Children, and I wish you all the best. 

Rating: Across the Green Grass Fields – 6.5/10
-Cole

Hall of Smoke – Give Me S’more

Hall of SmokeI’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.

Rating: Hall of Smoke – 7.5/10
-Alex

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The Mask Of Mirrors – Dressed To The Nines

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-1Boy, do I love tarot cards. There is something I find so cool about them. I am not big on fortune-telling in general but there is something so romantic, so enthralling, about shuffling a deck, laying out some very intricate and beautifully illustrated cards, flipping over the answers to difficult questions, and spending an entire book considering what their nebulous interpretations could mean. Which brings us to today’s review, The Mask of Mirrors (first in the Rook & Rose series) by M.A. Carrick (a combo pseudonym for Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms). Mask is part political thriller, part heist novel, part superhero origin story, and all glamorous outfits all the time. I had a surprisingly good time with this book, and I suspect you will as well.

The Mask of Mirrors grabbed me right out of the gate with its premise. The book tells the story of Ren, and Ren, as the back of the book will tell you, is a con artist. She has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal – to trick her way into a noble house, securing her fortune and her sister’s future. Her plan is to pretend to be the daughter of a long-estranged member of a noble house, fake her way through the glitz and pageantry of the nobles for a few months, and get adopted back into the house where she (and her sister Tess, who poses as her maid) will live a life of luxury. There is only one problem. Very soon after beginning her ruse, Ren discovers that the noble house she is lying her way into is now destitute. Now, in order to rob them, Ren must help the family first win back their fortunes. It is a difficult task, but as Ren’s alternative is to return to the gutter from whence she fled, she will stop at nothing to return these rubes to power only to rob them blind immediately after.

This is a very innovative and fun take on a heist to me. There is a sort of Russian nesting doll of trickery abound that makes things delightfully complicated, both in the ruse’s execution and Ren’s feelings about what she is doing. It creates a huge number of chances for character growth and depth and both Brennan nor Helms capitalize on those opportunities. Speaking of which, I found the author trade-off completely seamless. I didn’t even notice there were two different people writing until I accidentally read the back author bio about 70% of the way through. Both writers did such a fantastic job blending their styles that I could never tell them apart. But that might have to do with the fact that the entire book is just so amazingly good at making you care about the authors’ passions.

Mask is just stuffed with things that the authors clearly care a lot about on a personal level. There is so much detail and page space in this book devoted to describing the outfits that characters are wearing – and it absolutely works. There is a clear importance of dress woven into the narrative like a thread (ok I will stop) that makes all the details about lace and sleeves feel exciting. Carrick’s passion for clothing is also infectious. I found myself thinking about throwing out some old ugly sweaters on multiple occasions and started browsing expensive suits even though I have nowhere to wear them thanks to the COVID plague. Some of the other passions of the book involve tarot (as I already mentioned), masquerades, bureaucracy, dreams, masked vigilantes, and mercantile negotiations. All of these will haunt your mind and imagination as you read Mask as Carrick’s passion pulls you into a riptide of empathy. Empathy that will form an ocean of attachment to the lovable cast.

Ren is definitely the ringmaster in this circus, and she is a blast. Many heist novels suffer from telling about how great their mastermind is, instead of showing, which is not even a slight problem here. We get to see how Ren’s brilliance and tenacity help her claw her way into the good graces of high society, and you definitely feel like she earns all of her victories. Supporting Ren is a menagerie of side characters, some foils and others allies for her ruse. Unfortunately, the depth of the side cast varies enormously. Characters like Grey and Vargo steal the stage with their mysterious backgrounds and wonderful complexity. Meanwhile, Sedge definitely feels like an empty wastebasket into which the authors toss easy plot devices.

My other major criticism of The Mask of Mirrors is that it doesn’t quite feel like a fully contained story. Carrick clearly has plans for an epic tale of heroics, cunning, and treachery, but this results in Mask feeling like it tells only a piece of a larger story, not its own fully formed tale. The stopping point at the end of book one almost feels arbitrary, I don’t feel like I got full closure, and I hunger for more story. The pacing is also slow, but I didn’t see that as an issue as much as a narrative choice. If you are enjoying the book, it will feel like a calm stroll through a rose garden. On the other hand, if you don’t like the story, I suspect it will feel like being dragged behind the world’s slowest and most tireless horse. Depends on the reader, but I definitely caught the sweet scent of flowers – not manure.

The Mask of Mirrors was an excellent start to my 2021 reading and really pumped me up for everything to come this year. It has style, it has grace, it has passion. The only thing it doesn’t have is you reading it right now. Go remedy that. If any of the topics in my list of Carrick’s passions struck your fancy, or if you like political intrigues or heists, you will love this book. I am already counting the days until I get my hands on the next book in the series.

Rating: The Mask of Mirrors – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Bobiverse – Or Why We Should Kill God

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?

Bobiverse

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.

Swordheart – Pointedly Funny and Heartwarming

51c12tgr73lLook, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. It is currently published by Argyll Productions, a small targeted publisher, so Swordheart is relatively unknown – which is a crime. I found my copy of Swordheart at my public library. There was only a single copy in circulation, I had to wait for ages for it to come off hold, and when I finally got it it was one of the most beat up and well-loved copies of a book I have ever seen. Upon finishing the book I closed the back cover, pulled out my laptop, and ordered Swordheart and the three other currently existing books in the same universe in hardback. I know this is a world and author I am going to enjoy.

Putting aside the hyperbolic love for a second, the plot of Swordheart is rather simple from the outside. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line:

“Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.”

Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. Swordheart is the story of two characters. Our first is Halla, a housekeeper (of sorts) to a wealthy and difficult man who dies and leaves his entire inheritance to her because she was the only person he actually liked. This is a problem for his multiple surviving family members who decide that the best way to get Halla to give up the money is to annoy and badger her to death and collect it from her corpse. When contemplating suicide because she would rather be dead than deal with any more aggressively annoying family members (relatable, and I know my family reads the site but I stand by what I said) she unsheaths a magical sword with a warrior named Sarkis trapped inside. Sarkis, our second protagonist, is an immortal battle-spirit trapped inside a weapon that is forced to serve the will of its wielder. Upon Halla summoning him, he hilariously convinces her not to kill herself and they team up to figure out how to secure Halla’s inheritance. Thus begins an extremely unlikely, and extremely funny, romantic story that kept me enrapt from line one.

Swordheart’s three key strengths are its unbelievably funny humor, its extremely believable world, and its lovable characters – all of which are intertwined. Kingfisher is one of the funniest authors I have ever read, and I was laughing so hard I was tearing up every few pages. A lot of the humor revolves around both the characters’ personality/chemistry, but an equal part of it has to do with funny observational humor about Kingfisher’s world. This has the added benefit of naturally fleshing out the worldbuilding in a fun and enjoyable way, while also distracting you from the fact that she is just dumping cool lore into your brain in large sections. But the world isn’t just funny. There various cultures, sects, magic, and cities you learn about in Swordheart had me engrossed in this book and clamoring to get my hands on the other ones set in the world. It’s a shame that the book is only around 400 pages long because I would have read a thousand pages of this story. The book is a stand-alone, but Kingfisher mentioned that she hopefully will be writing two more that follow similar characters in a loose trilogy.

The third star of the show is the characters. Halla and Sarkis both have tons of depth and go beyond your very run of the mill protagonists. Halla is a very kind, but very suppressed woman who is clever, but didn’t really have the imagination or ambition to conceive of a present or future where she was happy – just one where she got by and did what needed to be done. Sarkis is an energetic, impatient, protective, and outlandish brute who has a complicated sense of honor. Their chemistry has enough fire to burn down a small village, and they are only the first two characters. There is also an entire supporting cast of antagonists and friends that all feel fully realized and enhance this epic quest of traveling to a records office and filing a case against some annoying people.

I read Swordheart last year (in 2020) and it was one of the few bright warm moments of that entire hellscape of a trip around the sun. This book brought me happiness and joy in a time where I really needed it and was so fun that I immediately purchased another copy for myself to enjoy over and over again for years to come. As a reviewer it is always a rare and wonderful joy when you discover a relatively unknown book (and author) who blows you away with their quality work and you get to go out into the world and shout their praises. This is one of those occasions, and I implore you to find a copy of Swordheart as soon as you can.

Rating: Swordheart – 10/10
-Andrew

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Eight Takes On A Good Time

51zwilr7mblI seem to be reading a lot of great novels by journalists recently, and if they keep turning out as well as this one did I have no plans to stop. I don’t know if I would strictly call The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton a fantasy book, but I will call it fun. I would describe it as more of a traditional mystery novel with a fantastical twist. You may be the judge as to what genre it belongs to when you finish reading this review, but regardless of how you categorize it, I am very sure you will have a good time if you have even a passing interest in murder mysteries.

So what is Evelyn Hardcastle? Well, in many ways it’s a traditional murder mystery – a number of rich family and friends, brimming with secrets, all gather at a large beautiful estate with ample space to avoid one another. A murder happens, and a detective must solve the crime within a certain period of time. But, like all good mysteries recently, there is a twist that spices up the formula and keeps things fresh. Our protagonist in Evelyn Hardcastle, who shall remain unnamed, must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle within eight days. To do this, each day the protagonist possesses a different person in the story and may spend their time however they want to find out what happened. But, at the end of eight days if they haven’t solved the murder, “bad things” will happen to them.

It’s best to go into Evelyn Hardcastle knowing as little as possible about the plot because discovering what is happening is half the fun. There are really two core mysteries to solve: who killed Hardcastle and what is going on with the supernatural body swapping. You will find yourself frantically trying to piece together what is happening from the various POVs. It’s really fun to see different scenes from new perspectives, for previous confusing events to suddenly make sense, and to try and keep track of what person is where in this confusing, yet meticulous, plotline. But, you also are looking for context clues and hints as to how and why the protagonists ended up in a situation where they are possessing different people like a ghost with no explanation as to why. Both mysteries held up extremely well and had all the great surprises and reveals of a good story, but what really sets the book apart from its brothers and sisters in the genre is the depth of its themes and ideas.

There is a lot of philosophical discussion at the heart of Evelyn Hardcastle, and it does a good job of elevating the story to be deeper than your traditional dime-store thriller. There is a close examination of morality, discussions on ethics, and the meaning of crime and punishment. This was the first mystery novel in a while that got me to ask bigger questions than “whodunnit?, and that earned the book lot of affection from me. Yet, there were some small issues that kept the book from being completely perfect. While I did enjoy how there was more to the book than simply solving a crime, I didn’t quite feel like everything was neatly tied up in the end. Some of the secondary plotlines felt like they could have been layered in slightly better. In addition, the characters felt more like actors reading from a script than actual believable people – though some of the reasoning of this is eventually explained by the plot. These issues certainly weren’t enough to dampen my joy while reading it, but I do think the delivery of the story could have been a bit smoother.

In the end, no matter how you categorize The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle it can definitely be labeled as recommended. The mysteries are captivating, the magic is fresh, and the content has a nice hefty weight that makes you feel like you are reading something smart and insightful. All in all, this book is a very enjoyable read and I think it would appeal to almost any reader I know.

Rating: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Outside – Seeing the Forest Over the Trees

51ti-w7znslI 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.

Rating: The Outside – 8.5/10
Alex

The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew