Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

When I got the hankering to reread The Rook, I thought I’d give it a review this time. 

The Rook Synopsis

“The body you are wearing used to be mine.” So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.

(Via Goodreads)

About Daniel O’Malley

Dan O’Malley graduated from Michigan State University and earned a Master’s Degree in medieval history from Ohio State University. He then returned to his childhood home, Australia. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats.

(Via Daniel O’Malley’s website)

My Thoughts

I read The Rook by Daniel O’Malley just before its sequel, Stiletto, released back in 2016. I loved it then and when I got the hankering to reread it (or a third book, which doesn’t seem to be in production, unfortunately), I thought I’d give it a review this time around.

What I Liked

Plot

Supernaturals + British secret agents = secret service superheroes. The basic premise of The Rook gives off X-Men vibes but the execution lands more within the realm of humorous and relatable James Bond, just with superpowers that involve licking things or venting toxins or diplomacy. Plus it features so many ladies playing active roles, impacting the narrative, and kicking ass. The playful tone puts me in mind of Artemis, just with even more women for fun and sharp banter. Also, while multiple characters maintain or express a desire for companionship, there’s only the barest hint of possible romance, leaving all the focus on the mysteries of the story.

Characters

The main character of The Rook, Mifanwy Thomas, cracks me up. Her internal monologue as she struggles to cope with the weird world of the Checquy she’s landed in entertains from start to finish, manifesting even more so in her dialogue and interactions with other characters. I like that she gets to have and wield power and authority as she fights for the respect she never earned pre-amnesia.

Mifanwy also builds and maintains friendships with another powerful woman in her organization, her very capable secretary, and a new friend outside of work. Beyond these, she displays pettiness and flaws, weaknesses and fears, criticisms and thoughts, awkwardness and a propensity to make mistakes. Well-rounded and badass.

Themes

The main aspect of interest here is the exploration of personality sans emotional trauma. With Mifanwy’s memories, and therefore all past traumatic events that would have shaped her into the timid, mousy woman she had become before her amnesia, wiped away through nefarious events, the narrative poses a question: who are we meant to be? How does PTSD alter that? How actively do traumatic events shape an individual? The narrative of The Rook implies that the answer is very as it presents the same woman as two totally different people.

Ending

Twist on twist on twist makes the climax of The Rook. While all kinds of other mini- and sub-plots get sprinkled throughout the narrative, the main plot itself gets so many loose ends tied up altogether at the same time. The intricacies of all the moving parts weaving together at once like that makes for a satisfying ending.

What I Disliked

Nothing. I love The Rook.

Recommendations

I’d recommend The Rook to fans of James Bond, the X-Men, and dry British humor.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.12


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Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Only seven chapters long, ‘All Systems Red’ moves along at a snappy pace, following the tale of Murderbot, an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people during crisis. Can relate.

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All Systems Red by New York Times-bestselling author Martha Wells

All Systems Red Synopsis

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksuraseries (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

How All Systems Red wound up on my Goodreads TBR list is a mystery to me. I suspect I must have seen one of my friends mark it as Read and seriously liked the description, which hints at an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people. Can relate, so I snagged it from my local library.

I was not, however, expecting a novella. All Systems Red is only seven chapters long, about 160 pages, but what an excellent clutch of chapters. Tor will be releasing three more novellas of The Murderbot Diaries throughout this year and I already have the sequel, Artificial Condition, on order. I had never even heard of Martha Wells before, but I believe I’ve just become her newest fan.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

With the constraints of the limited page amount, the plot of All Systems Red moves along at a snappy pace, wasting no time with extraneous details or fluff. Yet it avoids sacrificing important story aspects like emotional investment, character development, and plot twists. It’s interesting from start to finish, cleverly revealing bits of the universe through relevant character thoughts, dialogue, and setting description.

Characters

The main character of All Systems Red, which calls itself ‘Murderbot,’ has more personality as an android than many of the main characters I’ve read in the past. It’s shy, smart, and youthful, has interests, opinions, and wit, and embodies a certain sense of true asexual, aromantic, gender neutrality. The story happens in first person and Murderbot makes a point of indicating that it has zero interest in sex or romance, which is the kind of main character I want to read! Skip the romance fluff and get down to important things, like group dynamic observations and interactions or Big Questions. Murderbot also represents a recognizable dynamic of the Millennial generation — under-educated, over-competent, and winging it at any given moment.

The rest of the crew surrounding Murderbot shines each in their own way. Based on the names, readers can divine a diverse group in ethnicity alongside Murderbot’s observations of their eclectic gender orientations and futuristic lifestyles. Many ladies populate the crew, receiving action, agency, and voices throughout.

Motifs

The spacefaring interplanetary exploration motif put me just a little in mind of the beginning of the movie Alien, but with the draggy elements cut out. The plot features a good mix of exploration, action, and mystery.

The Ending

At first I thought the ending of All Systems Red would be just okay. There are big and small resolutions that tie up the plot itself quite neatly; however, the way things appear to go at first leave Murderbot’s personal issues somewhat reconciled, but certainly not complete or satisfied. I greatly preferred the way the plot actually ends, transferring into a sequel with a little meta tag as the last word. I’m considerably more satisfied with the way All Systems Red subverts typical short-story ending tropes, but I recognize such success arises from the opportunity to continue.

What I Disliked

Perhaps because of the point of view of Murderbot, who doesn’t care about distinguishing human characteristics, it was at first hard to tell the other characters apart. Yet as the plot progressed, it became easier to know who was who based on dialogue, actions, and group dynamics, so it doesn’t remain a problem for very long.

The explanation of Murderbot’s crew identity came off as a little convoluted so that I’m still not quite sure what the narrative meant to relate about their background. Possibly a reread would solve that problem, though.

Recommendations

I recommend All Systems Red for fans of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and the world setting of the Alien movies franchise (minus the alien horror aspect), as well as for readers looking for a total lack of romantic subplot in science fiction.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.15 stars


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Book Review: The Language of Thorns

Fairy tales have a tradition of presenting moral conclusions and this collection sticks to that tradition, but with a modern spin.

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The Language of Thorns by #1 New York Times-bestselling author Leigh Bardugo

Synopsis

Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.

Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.

(Via Goodreads)

About the Author:

Leigh Bardugo
#1 New York Times-bestselling author, Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo  is a #1 New York Times-bestselling author of fantasy novels and the creator of the Grishaverse. With over one million copies sold, her Grishaverse spans the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, the Six of Crows Duology, and The Language of Thorns— with more to come. Her short stories can be found in multiple anthologies, including The Best of Tor.com and the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her other works include Wonder Woman: Warbringer, and the forthcoming Ninth House. Leigh was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Southern California, graduated from Yale University, and has worked in advertising, journalism, and even makeup and special effects. These days, she lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.

(Via author’s website)

My Impressions

In stories from the likes of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the young maiden always receives and overcomes a series of awful and often demeaning challenges in order to marry some vapid prince and live happily ever after with him in the castle. Right? But what if she didn’t? What if someone thought to call into question the faults and foibles of the other characters in these fables and let the heroes make different ethical choices? The fairy tale-style short-stories from Leigh Bardugo‘s The Language of Thorns do just that, twisting and darkening, but also enlightening by illuminating familiar plot devices and calling them into question. Fairy tales have a tradition of presenting moral conclusions and this collection sticks to that tradition, but with a modern spin.

For example, a girl chosen multiple times by her family to slay a monster in the pursuit of riches, even after they have more than enough. A toy soldier brought to life for the amusement of selfish teenagers, but wishing to pursue a will of his own. A forest witch accused of stealing young girls who uses a gingerbread girl to find the real killer. A friendship ending in betrayal and beginning the villainy of the tale to come after.

There wasn’t a thing I disliked about these stories. Breathtaking artwork curls across the corners and along the borders of the pages. Fascinating stories sprawl across the length and breadth of Bardugo‘s imaginary world of the Grisha universe, wearing the coats of familiar fables but revealing themselves as something different and beautiful beneath.

I would recommend The Language of Thorns to anyone who loves fairy tales. This book is also for anyone disenchanted with their rehashed moral themes.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.48 stars


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Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter

This narrative is a wide-eyed, stark look at how tyrants rise to power in the real world.

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Tempests and Slaughter by #1 New York Times bestselling author Tamora Pierce

Synopsis

Arram Draper is a boy on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting danger. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram begins to realize that one day soon he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Any book written by #1 New York Times bestselling author Tamora Pierce will naturally get a read from me. I grew into the fantasy-loving feminist I am today because of the influence her Song of the Lioness series had on me in my early adolescence. She’s like my fantasy fiction mom, teaching me through her myriad sub-series of the Tortall and Circle series how awesome women are, the nature of respect and politeness, and the complex interplay between tolerance and bravery. She starts her characters young, engendering in the reader the seeds of the lessons she wishes to impart, so that we all grow with them as we read along.

Pierce‘s newest novel, Tempests and Slaughter, begins the Numair Chronicles, a series of as-yet unknown length. (She tends to write in quartets, however, and that’s what I’m expecting this time.) It’s about my very favorite side character, Numair Salmalín, and how he became the goofy, gentle, nerdy wizard we see in The Immortals series, in which he meets and teaches wildmage Veralidaine Sarrasri. Full disclosure, I had a huge bookworm crush on Numair as a sixteen-year-old and he’s still close to my heart to this day. I own all of Pierce‘s Tortall books (well, I did until this one released; now I’ll be buying it for my collection soon!) and I tend to read one or several of the sub-series every year.

I’m a massive fan of literary callbacks; Tempests and Slaughter has them in spades, though they might be considered callforwards, as this narrative takes place before The Immortals, making loads of references to what will happen to Numair — known at this time as Arram Draper — in his future. It has only revealed a sliver of his adventures hinted at in Wild Magic and I’m so looking forward to finding out how everything connects. Young Arram is just as incorrigible as he will be in adulthood, with a thirst for knowledge that leads him to make unlikely friends, from the downtrodden and oppressed to master sorcerers to a future emperor. His gentle nature, however, puts him at odds with the cutthroat mindset of the rulers and nobles of his country, who are just a few of the diverse cast and characters readers meet.

Despite the opportunities Arram has to influence future emperor and villain of The Immortals series, Ozorne, his policy of non-confrontation will potentially be consequential in shaping Ozorne’s ultimate tyrannical rule. Because this series is not only about the rise of Numair, but also about the eventual fall of Numair’s best friend. Pierce weaves a subtle tale where Ozorne is concerned, pointing out to her readers the dangers of brushing aside and accommodating bigoted and intolerant behavior. Knowing Ozorne’s future fate and watching the unfortunate way Arram handles the warning signs breaks my heart, because we’ve all been caught between maintaining friendship and doing the right thing, trapped in a turmoil of cultural acceptance. Tempests and Slaughter is a wide-eyed, stark look at how tyrants rise to power in the real world. Every villain was someone’s friend, and every villain had friends who did nothing to stop them before it was too late.

Tamora Pierce clearly has more moral lessons to teach us. I’m eager to hear what she has to say.

Goodreads rating: 4.82 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

 

Book Review: Interworld

Joey Harker not only makes serious, life-costing mistakes, but suffers the consequences of his actions. So much so that at one point in the story, he winds up even further back than square one.

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Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

(Via Goodreads)

Synopsis

InterWorld tells the story of Joey Harker, a very average kid who discovers that his world is only one of a trillion alternate earths. Some of these earths are ruled by magic. Some are ruled by science. All are at war.

Joey teams up with alternate versions of himself from an array of these worlds. Together, the army of Joeys must battle evil magicians Lord Dogknife and Lady Indigo to keep the balance of power between all the earths stable.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

I ran across Interworld at the library by accident, and picked it up because it had Neil Gaiman‘s name on the front, one of my favorite writers. I hadn’t heard of the co-author, Michael Reaves, ostensibly because I never got around to reading the novelizations of the Star Wars expanded universe, to which he contributed. I opened the book because I wondered, how would the distinct style of Gaiman blend with this as-yet-unknown-to-me other author?

Pretty nicely, it turns out.

The narrative unfolds in a quick, no-fluff fashion, following a particularly sensible main character, Joey Harker, who couldn’t find his way out of a wet paper sack but has the special ability to Walk between the trillions of alternate earths within the Alterverse. Despite its size, this small book manages to squeeze in a solid adventure and significant character development for both the main character and his companions, as well as his enemies. It also handles the various explanations of the Alterverse and the concept of transdimensional passage with a blithe, joking tone that makes such complicated concepts both simple and amusing.

I have one problem with the alignment of the main characters. They are so predictably ‘good’ that one of them even says the phrase, “We don’t gloat. We’re the good guys.” I find such a sentiment both unrelatable and desperate for challenge, because that level of certainty flirts with the sort of hubris displayed by most villains. I hope very much that this deep-seated conviction will be shaken sometime in the next two books. However, I appreciate that Joey Harker not only makes serious, life-costing mistakes, but suffers the consequences of his actions. So much so that at one point in the story, he winds up even further back than square one.

Overall, I’d suggest this as a good book for juvenile readers who like sci-fi and fantasy.

Goodreads rating: 3.5
My rating: 3/5

Book Review: What the Hell Did I Just Read?

David Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

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What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

Synopsis

Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators.

The novel you’re reading is a cover-up, and the “true” story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here’s what I expected from David Wong‘s What the Hell Did I Just Read?: a boyish romp through nihilistic philosophy and loads of gratuitous violence, eldritch horror, existential dread, and dick jokes.

What I got: exactly that, but with more thoughtfulness.

Just before the release of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, I reread the first in the series, John Dies at the End. I found it as good on the second read as on the first, but the difference four books (and countless articles at Cracked.com) can make in a writer’s skills and priorities shows. Wong (or Jason Pargin, really) has put his platform to work in order to touch on a few social issues, set against the background of absurdity.

I still don’t know for sure what happened in What the Hell Did I Just Read?, because as the synopsis and the title suggest, our narrators are incredibly unreliable this time around. (They may have always been. Who even knows?) It would have been easy to give readers a new logic-defying adventure characterized by the IDGAF attitude of David, John’s occasional wild narrative inputs, and Amy keeping up with the usual lunacy. That’s how it looks at first — just another fun time with our trio of badasses.

But unreliability, I think, is the point of the narrative. Real life is messy and noisy and confusing. Stories get convoluted when one person tries to cover for another, your friends prove somewhat untrustworthy, and, like internet comment threads, nothing gets tied up in a neat, satisfying bow. Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

You tend to hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination” as a consolation for an unsatisfactory conclusion. By the time I tumbled to the last page of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, that phrase is exactly what I was thinking. As I mulled over the events of the narrative, I realized that, as in life, what happened along the way was far more important than the end. I had fun and that was what mattered.

I won’t spoil, but there are two “along the way” events I really cared about: Amy’s role in this unholy trinity and the issue of David’s mental health. Both of them indicate Wong’s changing social issue stances.

My favorite part is that Amy gets to have her own agency, her own (contradictory) opinions and desires, things she does outside of hanging out with David and John, actions that impact the narrative, and even acts as the household provider in her and David’s dynamic. Things women don’t often get to do in fiction, despite them being daily realities for us all. Things Amy didn’t get to do much in the previous two books.

My next favorite is that, while Wong has never forced David into taking action about his depression before now, he finally takes a dig into the resistance depression sufferers often show toward psychological improvement, using David and company as his mouthpieces to get the message across to his readers. He’s made no secret of David’s mental health issues, but here he brought it to the forefront instead of letting it stagnate in the background.

Overall, I’m pleased with Wong’s execution of this newest installment, particularly since it takes the frightening and makes it familiar through the lens of relatable characters who could, at this point, be any of us.

Goodreads rating: 4.43 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: All the Crooked Saints

Maggie Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, but I think I’ve picked out the main one…

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All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis

Here is a thing everyone wants: A miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: What it takes to get one. Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here at last, I thought as I began reading All the Crooked Saints, was a Maggie Stiefvater book I wouldn’t love with all my heart. That’s a natural thing; no reader will adore every single piece a writer sends out.  I was prepared to accept this and look forward to her next book while rereading her previous ones.

The tone of All the Crooked Saints is more fanciful than usual, for starters, presented like an old folktale, with sparkling liveliness glinting in its eye. Also, it’s told in third-person omniscient, a style that I tend to dislike, as it jumps point-of-view too often for my taste.

But this, it turns out, is because while there are a dozen characters, each with their own wants and fears, darknesses, miracles, and personal arcs, there are really two characters in this story: the Saints and the pilgrims.

In a Facebook post prior to the release of All the Crooked Saints, Stiefvater alludes to last year, when she became inundated with requests for advice. “I found myself with a Tumblr inbox overflowing with readers asking me for #dubiouslifeadvice. But even as I answered the questions, I asked myself: what qualifies me to answer? Aren’t I imperfect, too, maybe more than the seeker?”

That very question shapes this story. Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, and I very well may in the future, but I think I’ve picked out the main one.

Once, in an article for Jalopnik, for which Steifvater writes pieces about cars that are actually metaphors for life, she pointed out something about my generation that stuck with me:

…young people can be anxious and say they’re anxious. There’s no longer a stigma to admitting it. On the one hand, this is beautiful. Name the monster and you can kill it. But on the other hand… people aren’t killing it. They’ve named it and now they’re keeping it as a permanent fixture of the household. It lurks in the living room with its pretend immortality. Will you kill it for me, please? They ask.

That’s us. We’re the pilgrims, asking the Saints for a miracle, then finding that once we’ve named the monster, we must be the ones to kill it. No one else can do it, because they’re all wrestling their own darknesses. “This is one spider you’ve got to kill on your own,” she writes.

The takeaway here, I think, is that we cannot cease solving ourselves. To work through our own problems (instead of setting them on the mantelpiece) is to help others with theirs. But, as in the tale, one follows the other. Perhaps it also returns on itself.

So, in conclusion, I loved this book. It’s filled with tasty morsels for my mind to chew over a good week after closing it. I identify with Beatriz Soria, who struggles with a darkness that gnaws at my own heart at times. I’m sure readers can find themselves somewhere inside this story, too. But will you be a pilgrim, or will you be a Saint?

Goodreads rating: 3.93 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars