Book Review: The Expert System’s Brother (Expert System #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky (four stars)

Book Review: The Expert System’s Brother (Expert System #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky (four stars)

I was on the brink of a world that contained so much more than I ever knew, and everything was terror. Then everything was wonder. 

Excellent science fiction coming-of-age tale set in a dystopic world which seems to reject its human inhabitants. Handry isn’t quite ready to become an adult member of his community when he finds himself thrust from it. His savior may be worse than what he was saved from. Plenty of social commentary.

The revelation shook me. Sharskin and the ghosts were no different, save in who benefitted. 

Self-depreciating narrator still manages to be unreliable, a la Holden Caulfield (but without the trash talk). Though told in retrospect, Handry doesn’t spill the beans too soon—allowing attentive readers to figure out what’s going on for themselves. Good job.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default. 

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Washington was rich enough to pay his own way … but devoted enough to the cause to risk it all.

Better essential biography than larger, duller, more famous tomes. Coe eschews details for the larger picture. Her broad brush portrait is adequate for all purposes but the most academic.

Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery, but had George Washington not contracted the disease during his final year of British service, he would never have met Martha Dandridge Custis.

That said, skip the Preface and Introduction: Coe patting her own back and indulging in the same banal gossip of which she accuses other biographers.

After defending Washington, the Thigh Men usually turn their sight on Martha, blaming her for the couple’s childlessness.

Most biographers agree George was probably the reason he had no children. For which generations of Americans should probably be grateful.

He was most likely a deist.

Not true. Even Cox infuses her volume with many GW quotes which refer to a caring, intervening God. (“I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved, & been bountiful to me.”) Thomas Jefferson was a deist; George Washington was a quiet, conventional Christian of the mainstream denomination.

“Washington did not really outfight the British,” the British spymaster Major George Beckwith said, “He simply outspied us.”

Cox holds the magnifying glass to both Washington’s successes and his failures, among the later his not emancipating his many slaves while he lived.

The figurehead of American liberty was never far from a representation of its (and his own) deep-seated hypocrisy.

Love the cover art. Frequent use of tables summarizes and oversimplify key details. Side bars break up the text in a modern, casual style.

Unbridled partisanship was his greatest fear, and his greatest failure was that he became increasingly partisan.

Book Review: Echoes of Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dixs (three stars)

Book Review: Echoes of Earth (The Orphans Trilogy #1) by Sean Williams and Shane Dixs (three stars)

“Aliens on one side, spies on the other. That’s not much of a choice. I’m glad it’s you and not me who has to make it.”

A different sort of first contact fiction. Well done. Everyone seems broken and at odds, then things get worse.

“You are aware of the need for caution in the face of new technology. If you follow our guidance, you will be safe.” As the psychologist said to the laboratory rat, he thought.

Hard science fiction of a most speculative sort. Gratuitous profanity. Religion-based profanity doesn’t ring true so far in the future. Talk about your apocalypse.

‘If, as the [redacted] had suggested, there were hostile races out there, looking for victims, it would be dangerous to announce one’s presence quite so readily as Earth had once done.’

Begins a series but manages a satisfying conclusion to this book.

‘Not even the promise of immortality could take the sting out of getting older.’ 

Book Review: All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay (four stars)

Book Review: All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay (four stars)

We are not at the mercy of randomness, or fate, but both are present for us. 

Self-consciously a told story: Kay’s best fantasy fiction to date. Draws together threads of many previous novels in his fantasy late medieval world yet doesn’t force readers to read the preceding volumes to enjoy this one. The framing story, set decades in the future, works but adds little.

 “Are you certain?” “I am certain of nothing. I have decided uncertainty is all right. But I know that this feels needful to me.” 

Many point-of-view characters, but Kay clearly defines whose head the reader is in. Even more introspective than previous fare, if possible. His analog for his world religions free him to define and defy religious conventions.

The boundaries of belief … could be hard as iron or permeable as air. 

Cracks the door into the beyond. “Quarter turn to the fantastic,” as are most Kay offerings. Adds depth rather than driving the narrative. His nod to correctness is transitory and nearly transparent. Little profanity. Many epigrammatic sayings. You know how it turns out but are enthralled by how he gets you there.

Other people, for different reasons, seem to never really have a home, even if they settle somewhere. That becomes a place they live. Not the same thing. They go through their lives as if adrift on all the seas of the world.

Book Review: Mickey7 by Edward Ashton (three stars)

Book Review: Mickey7: A Novel by Edward Ashton (three stars)

‘This is gonna be my stupidest death ever.’ 

Murderbot does Multiplicity. Mickey has troubles enough, what with dying yesterday. This morning he discovers there are two of him. A human attempt to colonize a world which turns out to be less hospitable than it looked from seven lightyears away. And there are critters. Humor and drama.

‘I’m not the most sensitive person, but I’ve been alive long enough to figure out that telling a miserable person about how much worse things could be is usually a bad idea. ‘

Good storytelling; nice voice. Alternates chapters of current activity with those of backstory. All is told from the intensive introspective point of view of the seventh iteration of not-too-bright Mickey.

‘From a warfighter’s perspective, it was the perfect weapon. From an actual human being’s perspective, of course, it was a nightmare.’ 

Quibbles: The climax hinges on logic which any allusion to would be a major spoiler. Gratuitous profanity.

‘We just need time.’ 

Book Review: Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (five stars)

Book Review: Last Train to London: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton (five stars)

“It’s the problems you fail to anticipate that defeat you.”

Extraordinary historical fiction. Deep personal stories woven into the tapestry of a horrible two years of European history. Intense first-person narrative of the principal actors. The historic people and actions as dramatic as the fiction. Several main characters are historic and reported as they really were, even if immediate actions and words are invented.

“I’m a woman who can’t bear a child in a world that values nothing else from me!” “You are a woman doing important work, in a world that badly needs you.”

What historical fiction should be: takes the reader deep into the lives of people trying to navigate a time of upheaval and horror. Americans are largely ignorant of what happened in Europe—especially eastern Europe—as the shadow of Nazi Germany snuffed out whole countries and peoples.

‘It was an honor, to be listened to closely, to be heard. One could honor someone without agreeing with them.’

Individuals—women in a time when they were ignored if not outright discriminated against—dare to oppose the terror and make a difference.

Foreign Secretary Halifax said that any British response could provoke war.”

Obvious parallels to contemporary history.

“We haven’t begun to see the extent of his man’s capacity for cruelty.”

Quibbles: Got the baby on the train all wrong. A baby small enough to fit in a picnic basket won’t be saying “Mama” to anyone. And won’t stay quiet for 36 hours. And will need to be fed.

The Last Train to London is Truus’s story, and that of the children and their families. I hope it does them all justice, and that it will inspire readers as surely as they all have inspired me.” Meg Waite Clayton

Book Review: The Pariah by Anthony Ryan. (three stars)

Book Review: The Pariah (Covenant of Steel #1) by Anthony Ryan. (three stars)

It was one of the contradictions of outlaw life that those called to it at a young age were often better behaved than seemed natural for children, but then fear is a great disciplinarian.

An orphan finds his way in a world best by human and perhaps demonic evil. Better than average hero’s journey with the twist of the protagonist narrating it from a far in the future perspective, which spoils some events but gives greater poignancy to others.

It would please me to report that this was the only occasion on which I experienced profound surprise at finding myself still alive, but that, as you will see, would be very far from the truth.

Reasonably sound medieval pseudo-European hard fantasy (that is, little magic and no orcs, elves and the like), but who wants reasonable fantasy? Recycled world and people with the potential that everyone, including Alwyn, is flawed, and his life depends on him sorting who is a threat and who an ally.

I suspected the Lady Evadine might not be conscious of her own calculation. She believed, of that I had no doubt, and a believer will justify all acts in pursuit of their faith.

Lost a star each due to gratuitous profanity and the abrupt ending. Having established a character by her salty language, Ryan could have backed off but didn’t. The book (and story) didn’t finish; it just cut off.

If it has already been written down, can I still change it?

Book Review: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (four stars)

Book Review: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (four stars)

I may have been fifty percent machine, but I had the emotional range of a healthy empathetic human being. And so recounting all that led me to that moment in the desert crushed me again.

Great storytelling; great science fiction; great interpersonal relationships. The reader’s story starts when it does for AO. The development is well foreshadowed without being too obvious. The climax is simultaneously a surprise and inevitable. Good job.

“If none of you ever hear from me again, know that it is because you’ve sent me and this woman to a mad man.” “Sometimes madness is the best path!”

Okorafor has a gift for inner dialogue; her protagonist’s reaction to herself and her environment inspires the reader’s sense of being there.

Nigeria has its problems, but it is a wealthy country and so much of its people’s truest wealth remains untapped because the rest of the world sees the entire continent as “war-torn,” “diseased,” and “poor.”

Just enough humor to leaven the bitterness. The usual markdown for gratuitous profanity.

“The problem with you is that you’re so used to pain and discomfort that your definition of feeling okay is not the greatest indicator of being okay.”