Piranesi – Gets My Goat

81h7env6hlPiranesi is the most recent novel by Susanna Clarke, best known for her truly massive book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Normally I wouldn’t put this much emphasis on an author’s past work, but Norrell might be the largest book I have ever read both in page count and in density. While Norrell is a titanic piece of literature that is more reminiscent of a historical reference novel than a fantasy story, Piranesi is a wonderfully quick read clocking in at less than 300 pages. And yet, despite their large difference in size and composition, there are noticeable similarities between the two books. Such as the fact that both novels are profound and beautifully introspective works of fiction.

Piranesi is a quiet book. It tells the story of… well… a man with no name, no identity really. This man wanders an endless labyrinth with thousands of halls, each filled with endless statues depicting all manner of people. There is one other person in the labyrinth, a man looking for the ultimate truth, and he calls our protagonist Piranesi as an inside joke that he keeps to himself. Thus, while Piranesi is not our protagonist’s name, it is how I will refer to them for the rest of the review.

The labyrinth is a strange and tranquil place. It is like a giant island sitting in the middle of the ocean. Each day certain parts of the maze are flooded by the tides – but Piranesi is an expert on the ways of the labyrinth and is always sure to move around before he drowns. Piranesi spends his days exploring new parts of the maze, which he calls “the house,” and marvels at its beauty. As the story progresses you begin to find out that the house has strange and magical powers. It slowly strips selective memories of those who live there and drives them insane, yet Piranesi has somehow been here quite a long time, seemingly untouched by this effect. As you make your way into the book you begin to learn Piranesi’s past and what is really happening in the house.

Although the prose and narrative style of Piranesi is distinctly different from that of Norrell, it is quite easy to tell they were written by the same author. Piranesi’s prose consists of short, poignant, and vivid passages that talk about the character’s observations and thoughts about the world around him. It has the feel of a historian chronicling the greatest discovery of their lifetime. There is this overwhelming reverence that just leaks out of the pages as Piranesi talks about the house, and the story slowly shows you why this reverence is correct and pulls you into the maze’s corridors. It is a winding and surreal book that leaves you feeling strange and unable to sleep thanks to the questions it begs you to ask..

I don’t want to tell you too much more about Piranesi because it is best to go in as blind as possible. This book is less of a story and more of an experience – one that I recommend everyone pick up and try for themselves. The words of this tale flow like poetry and take you through a magical maze filled with wonder, introducing you to one of the purest individuals you will ever read about. Piranesi is certainly one of the most unique books that I have read this year, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Rating: Piranesi – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Factory Witches of Lowell – Could Have Used More Time In The Loom

71frdjxulIt’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 story follows 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.

Rating: Factory Witches of Lowell – 6.0/10
-Alex

Legacy Of Steel – Sharper With Practice

legacy-of-steel-large-1Matthew Ward needs to calm down, because this is the second enormous fantasy book of his that I have reviewed this year, and it is becoming a lot. I am going to assume that he had multiple books already written when Orbit acquired this trilogy because otherwise, he is churning out 1000 page epics every 6 months and might be a robot. Legacy of Steel is the second book in Ward’s aptly named Legacy Trilogy, you can find my review of the first book, Legacy of Ash, here.

Legacy of Steel takes the strong foundation that Ash built and improves on it in a number of ways. Steel feels like an immediate and direct continuation of the plot of book one. Ash ends with a temporary ceasefire (of sorts) in a war that takes up a large portion of the story, and Steel picks up as we step out of this eye in the storm back into the dangerous winds of war. Ash primarily focused on the human and political machinations of Ward’s world and how they drive conflict. On the flip side, Steel has a much greater focus on the divine and how a series of gods have been slinking around in the background secretly pulling strings.

One of my biggest annoyances with Ash as a book was that it actually felt like three 300-page books huddled in a trenchcoat. There were a number of fairly distinct plot arcs in the first novel that each could have been their own story, and I didn’t like them all equally. Steel does a much better job at having a clear, unified, driving story that runs through the entirety of the book. This makes it a much quicker, and more compelling, read, so I had a harder time setting it down. Steel doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. The many interesting themes, such as character identity, the nature of free will, and the morality of choices, are carried through into book two and Steel very much feels like the continuation of a conversation started in book one.

Another thing that Steel really nails is drastically expanding the scope of the world. In book one, we really only get to know two regions of a single country in Ward’s world and only catch glimpses of his gods. Steel fully fleshes out multiple other regions in our protagonist’s country, introduces us to a number of bordering nations, and provides a much more comprehensive look at the gods and their active meddling with mortals.

Our character roster has also both expanded and improved. Josuri is back from book one, and Ward does an amazing job taking the identity crisis he was experiencing and taking it in fun new directions. Viktor, my favorite lead from Ash, is also still around, but he is mostly relegated to the supporting cast. Instead, Ward chose to take a number of support characters from Ash and make them primary POVs in this second book. This rotating cast style really works for me and does a great job getting the reader to key plot moments all around the world in a very natural and organic way. It also keeps you from getting too bored with any one character and manages to make the cast feel both familiar and refreshing at the same time.

Legacy Of Steel is an improvement and escalation of everything that was good about Legacy Of Ash, while also repairing the few issues I had with book one. The two books combined form one of 2020’s largest and most engrossing fantasy stories and they are definitely some of my favorite debuts this year. I know recommending 1800 pages of fantasy books seems like a lot, but if you like epic fantasy you will be doing yourself a disservice by missing these two books.

Rating: Legacy Of Steel – 9.0/10
-Andrew

I Hope This Helps – Non-Escapism As Escapism

Tommy Siegel’s I Hope This Helps: Comics And Cures For 21st Century Panic springs right off the what-is-2020 press, and it couldn’t be more timely. To most, Siegel’s name will be justifiably unfamiliar. But both his comics and his music have impressive followings. Siegel is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for theatrical pop-rock band Jukebox The Ghost, a band I personally love but won’t talk about anymore here beyond telling you to give them a listen. On a separate note, if I had a nickel for every time I reviewed a graphic novel or comic by a popular musician, I my total would now sit at $0.15 (here’s the first, here’s the second). During long road trips in the band’s tour van, Siegel reignited his love for cartooning. He garnered a hefty following after striking up a “500 cartoons in 500 days” project, and much of his playful cartoonery made its way into I Hope This Helps, his debut book. 

The brunt of Siegel’s inaugural collection focuses on millennial life and the subtitular “21st century panic” that has indelibly weaved its way into our collective psyche. The result is a collection of comics and short written segments that feels undeniably “2020” in a way few things can. In fact, the final pages of the book acknowledge the march 2020 onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with a hesitantly hopeful message. The preceding chapters feature written portions in which Siegel rightfully laments the terrifying encroachment of social media into our lives. He does this as he (again rightfully) emphasizes its role in creating an audience for his work. These prose segments serve as a nice framework for the cartoons that comprise the majority of I Hope This Helps, though they’re easily skippable if you’re just here for a laugh. 

And laugh you will. Or at least I hope you will. I certainly did. I Hope This Helps is, as you’ve likely intuited, neither a fantasy nor a sci-fi book. But it feels like escapism nonetheless. A mysterious quality for a book that viciously highlights societal problems like the electoral college, social media addiction, and the fearful juxtaposition of smartphone utility and command over our attention spans. It’s as if Siegel understands that non-escapism can itself be an escape. Holding a mirror up to the worst parts of ourselves can strike up a fit of chuckles and, in some convoluted way, make us forget those are our problems, our struggles. It’s a fun take on laughter-as-medicine that feels as true to our time as anything else I’ve read or consumed this year. 

All that said, the comics about social-media-induced anxiety and excessive phone usage reach a point of diminishing returns. Siegel excels as a cartoonist when he gleefully skewers the needle-point specific aspects of millennial culture. A naked man with a Pringles-mascot head escapes a Pringles can. A dissection of Kombucha playfully tells us there’s “A live mushroom in every bottle.” A caped bloodsucker slogs away in a cubicle underneath a caption that says “Vampire Weekday.” These punchlines, which cast aside the social media and smartphone angle, sparked fits of genuine out-loud laughter as I flipped through them. And I mean laughs, not that exhale through the nose pseudo-laugh we all do when we experience something funny without anyone around. This isn’t to say that the commentaries on the collective millennial obsession with social media aren’t funny or worthwhile. It’s just that the wacky left-field jokes hit me harder. 

After weeks of election-following, pandemic worrying, and The Social Dilemma-watching, Siegel’s cartoons felt like a two-hour detox. This book won’t solve all your problems, but it will shine a bright light on the frivolous torments of 21st century culture. I Hope This Helps is a welcome reprieve from the terrifying normal and a deep dive into the wacky and zany brain of an intensely relatable (and immensely talented) musician and cartoonist. 

Rating: I Hope This Helps – 9.0/10
-Cole

Riot Baby – Anger As Art

71rws3vbplThis 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.

Rating: Riot Baby 10.0/10
-Alex

Nophek Gloss – Whimsical, Prickly, And Keen

51z7qpojazlHow is it already November in this forsaken year? With less than a month left before we put out our best of the year lists, our reviewers are hard at work chugging through all the books we wanted to get to before the year’s end. Part of that effort involves finishing up outstanding Dark Horses, like Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Gloss was the debut I was most excited to check out this year, as its summary made it sound like a bizarre journey through space and time with a lovable crew of rogues on a spaceship that pushed the boundaries of the imagination. The good news is Gloss lived up to my internal hype and is somehow both more and less than what I expected.

Gloss tells the story of Caiden, a recently liberated slave that has lost everything and is looking for revenge. The start of the book is extremely fast-paced, as the reader witnesses Caiden’s picturesque life farming space cows turn into a traumatic nightmare. Caiden was a member of a group of humans who are kept in captivity, and ignorance, so they can raise cattle to feed nophek – giant murder cat things that grow space fuel in their brains. In the vast multiverse of this book’s setting, only a few realities can support nophek biology, so they are worth quite a pretty penny. However, when a virulent plague ends up killing most of the world’s cattle – the overseers of the harvesting project decided to feed the slaves (i.e., Caiden) to the nophek to keep them alive a little longer for harvest. Caiden watches his entire family get brutally torn apart by space lions right in front of him, manages to escape and find a futuristic spaceship, and falls in with a group of five side characters who help him get it off the planet and to safety. Caiden, at about twelve years old, vows to enact a horrific vengeance on the slavers who killed his family and sets out on an epic quest to throw them into the nearest sun.

The plot of Nophek Gloss left me with distinctly mixed feelings, especially because it is absolutely not the focus of the book. Everything feels contrived: Caiden falls into a powerful ship, a friendly and brilliant crew, and a clear plan on how to enact his revenge, in about 10 pages. But, that’s also not really an issue because all of the plot is window-dressing for the ideas, characters, and character growth. If you are looking for a hard science-fiction that has a thrilling and gripping plot that fits thousands of pieces together in an immersive experience, look elsewhere. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes their science fiction couched in the context of the human experience, wants to explore new ideas about how we grow into who we are, and love creative worldbuilding – then look right here.

The characters of Gloss are fantastic, though you should know what you are getting yourself into. The five crewmates that Caiden picks up are delightful, and exploring their individual stories through the chapters was moving and engrossing. On the other hand, Caiden is written, very effectively, to sound like a young boy, and that can make him occasionally extremely annoying. He struggles to learn lessons and often repeats the same mistakes, over and over again. However, through each successive error, we can see that Caiden is truly growing as a person and working through his trauma, which is a big part of the story. Trauma, and how to heal from it, is a cornerstone theme of Gloss. The book is filled with numerous sad stories, from Caiden’s to the crew’s, to any number of other side characters we meet. The trauma is the true antagonist of the story and the reader gets to watch each character they are attached to deal with their horrific pasts in their own way.

But if you aren’t into all of this touchy-feely goodness like I am, the worldbuilding and technology in Gloss are really fun. There are a ton of new ideas for technology – like a fascinating take on forced aging – that I had never read before that kept me thinking long into the night. Gloss also has some really interesting takes on multiverses and spaceships that made the inner child in me heel-click with glee. The prose is also quite vivid and evocative, and there are many instances of stunning imagery that are still sticking with me weeks later.

Interestingly, most of the things I didn’t really like about Gloss were clearly features, not bugs. Hansen has clear and well-realized methods on how she wants to tell her story that took me out of my comfort zone and helped me feel refreshed with the science fiction genre. Nophek Gloss was one of the strongest Dark Horses I have read this year and its weird story and weirder characters have me firmly invested in what happens next. I definitely recommend you use my breakdown of the book to decide if you think it’s for you because those that are drawn to Nophek Gloss are going to love it.

Rating: Nophek Gloss – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Pale Light In The Black – If Only It Were A Little Brighter

81imkkyialSometimes 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’s Ghost, 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.

Rating: A Pale Light in the Black 6.5/10
Alex

Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

The Seventh Perfection – Septacular

49247320This is a weird novella, and I am here for it. The Seventh Perfection, by Daniel Polansky, sits somewhere between a full novel and a novella at just under 200 pages. But what a 200 pages it is. The story’s main gimmick is it is told completely from a second-person point of view, and it makes for a strange and fascinating tale. However, there is a reason that most books AREN’T told from this perspective, so did Daniel Polansky manage to use an original narrative technique while telling a compelling story? Yes, yes he did.

The Seventh Perfection tells the story of Manet, but you won’t know that for a while. Manet is a historian of sorts who has mastered the seven perfections. Each perfection represents a difficult skill, including things like perfect pitch and perfect memory. The perfections get harder as they climb in level, and Manet is one of the few who has mastered all seven. Manet is trying to track down the hidden stories of how the current God-King ascended the throne and overthrew the previous tyrant. When her chase starts to overturn stones that were better left unturned, she finds herself on the run from the law – yet consumed with the need to find out what happened.

While the story feels a little tried-and-true, Polansky’s narrative style breathes fresh life into the tale. Because the book is in the second person, we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. Since the entire book is dialogue, the pace is lightning fast, and I managed to finish the entire story in about two hours – every minute of which I spent glued to the pages. It felt like I was reading the book version of a video game speedrun. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing.

The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.

I can’t say too much more about The Seventh Perfection without giving away some large spoilers. Suffice to say, I very much recommend this book to anyone looking for something short and different. Its tiny page count and lack of bulky descriptives mean you will blast through it in about a day, but what a day you will have. Polansky has created something clever, rich, and fun, and I think everyone should check it out if given the chance.

Rating: The Seventh Perfection – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Shadow Of Kyoshi – Bend Me Break Me

Flameo, hotman, and welcome to the Fire Nation! F.C. Yee and Avatar co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino’s The Shadow of Kyoshi brings us to a pre-war Fire Nation riddled with political intrigue as the collaborators conclude the Kyoshi duology, which began with The Rise of Kyoshi last year. This sequel continues the story of Rise while expanding on the Avatar lore and deep-diving into Kyoshi’s growth as the Avatar. 

Shadow places Kyoshi in a precarious position. Kyoshi bursts onto the first pages with true earthbending flair as she raids the headquarters of a Ba Sing Se gang that’s been terrorizing locals. Kyoshi grapples with the trying political responsibilities thrust upon her as the Avatar while she recklessly charges into small criminal cells to disband them. Of course, every time she takes one down, another pops up. Her travels take her to the Fire Nation, where she’s reunited with her partner Rangi. As Kyoshi struggles to learn the elaborate customs of the Fire Nation capital, a strange threat from the Spirit World emerges and threatens to dismantle the delicate political tapestry of the country. Kyoshi must face the threat as she works to connect with the spirits of her past lives. If she doesn’t stop the Spirit World threat, the world could devolve into chaos and destruction. 

There are a lot of great elements in Shadow, but Kyoshi’s spiritual struggle is a real treat. Kyoshi’s spiritual journey is also intriguing and relatable. It’s reminiscent of Korra’s spiritual arc. Kyoshi is a proficient and strong bender, but she comes up against a wall when she tries to communicate with past Avatars. Her relationship with Kuruk, her immediate predecessor, represents this roadblock. Kyoshi’s perception of Kuruk is less-than-favorable, and this struggle often feels self-inflicted. Her negative opinion of him stands like a rock clogging the flow of his past-Avatar wisdom. Spiritual growth is a cornerstone of any Avatar’s narrative, and Kyoshi’s challenges mirror her attempts to resolve political quarrels. She can tip the scales to either side in the Fire Nation’s conflict, but she has to be decisive and, perhaps more importantly, ready to take action that will ultimately mean the demise of one of the parties involved. 

Throughout the book, Kyoshi’s position as the Avatar is cemented, but the world is still coming to terms with how she’ll handle the title. It doesn’t help that she seems unable to grasp what, exactly, an Avatar must do to keep the peace in both the physical and spirit worlds. One of the biggest appeals to the story, just like the prequel, is that Shadow drops plenty of lore bombs and extends the world of Avatar. It’s one of the areas where these prequel books really succeed and flourish, and it’s bound to please fans of the series. However, for me, I need more than some lore snippets to really immerse myself in a story, and this installment fell short of the mark for a few key reasons. 

The spiritual facet of Kyoshi’s story is by far my favorite part of Shadow, but it’s surrounded by a story that I frankly found hard to care about. The brunt of the story drops Kyoshi in the Fire Nation, where one clan vies for dominance over the Firelord. The Firelord’s illegitimate brother leads the would-be-usurpers, and Kyoshi exacerbates the already-tense situation by greeting the brother improperly at a reception celebrating her arrival. That’s a catalyst for various screw-ups to come, and the story unfolds on that web of political intrigue. The problem is that the web feels half-done. It’s as if whatever cosmic spider the universe hired to create the web showed up late and made a halfhearted attempt at creating it to meet his deadline. The result is a superficial game of political checkers when Avatar has previously shown that it’s capable of three-dimensional chess.

The worldbuilding has the same problem. I’ve come to expect vibrant, diverse cultures from the Avatar world, and Shadow zooms so far in on the Fire Nation that it’s hard to reconcile the story with the larger machinations at work. In all likelihood, this is a personal quibble. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sharply focused story in a well-established world. But, come on, it’s Avatar. I want a massive story with high stakes. This personal story, though serviceable, just isn’t that

The flipside of that argument is that we get hitherto unforeseen insight into the Fire Nation. Avatar gave us a glimpse of the propaganda-ridden country. Shadow gives us a compelling look at the pre-war Fire Nation and its intricate workings. Fire Nation folk value honor and integrity. Of course, when two clans define those words differently, problems arise. Kyoshi is the pebble that locks the well-oiled Fire Nation gears and sends the whole nation into disarray. And the spirit world threat (the identity of which will be familiar to readers of the first novel) exacerbates the unrest. 

To put it simply, I can’t decide where I stand on the focus of the story. I enjoyed holding a magnifying glass up to the Fire Nation, but I simultaneously longed for a world-spanning narrative that felt more true to Avatar. The characters of Shadow are well-formed and multi-dimensional, a step up from my primary issue with Rise. Kyoshi in particular is a fantastically multi-layered Avatar. Her partner Rangi and her mother Hei Ran get well-deserved spotlight moments, too. The supporting cast, particularly those who are new to the series, pale in comparison, but that felt right. The Fire Nation cast exists for a purpose, and their characters reflect that purpose.

Though I’m generally on the fence about Shadow’s components, there’s one piece I just flat-out didn’t like. The novel’s ending is rushed and features reveals that I felt were unearned. The villain, who is “meh” throughout, poses a threat, sure, but that arc fizzles. I didn’t ever buy into the motivations there, and the final encounter did little to sway me. 

All of this leads me to believe that The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi are best consumed as two halves of the same whole. I read them over a year apart, and I know there are parts of Shadow that 2019 Cole, fresh off of Rise, would have loved. For that reason, I am happy to recommend Shadow to Avatar fans. It may not be the Avatar world’s crowning achievement, but it’s still a fun story. Plus, Kyoshi is a straight-up badass. 

Rating: The Shadow Of Kyoshi – 7.0/10
-Cole