Book Review: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

Introduction

The narrative of The Tangled Lands, written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, follows the separate but intertwined stories of a handful of people living in or attempting to leave the Blue City, so named for the blue fires whose smoke detects those who have recently used magic. Choked with bramble and briar, the world features mere pockets of civilization, a far cry from the past, when mages and kings lived in floating castles and anyone with a spellbook could cast a spell. For casting magic brings on the bramble, and once the bramble arrives, it remains.

The clutch of stories within this anthology examines life in such a place, following the suffering, struggle, loss, overcoming, and hope. But not always in the ways you expect. In The Tangled Lands, hope almost always comes snarled up in loss.

Review

Of the short-stories presented, my favorite followed the tale of the Executioness, wherein her search for her kidnapped sons leads her to learn to fight, raise an army of women, and topple a small empire. I loved her no-nonsense manner of interacting with others and her unwillingness to see herself as anyone but a butcher from the Blue City, even as she becomes elevated throughout her journey.

As The Tangled Lands falls firmly within the realm of adult fantasy, I had no delusions going in of how gritty the descriptions could get. Frankly, there’s a lot of brutal death. As well, many instances of the nature of consequences in an incredibly unfair existence. Yet none of the short-stories left me feeling hopeless. In spite of the nihilistic nature of reality for the characters, their stories always represented the possibility of hope or peace or acceptance. A small, flickering reward for the struggle.

Readers will appreciate the very human nature of each of the characters. Their complicated relationships with their families, their willingness to fight to survive even as the odds stack against them. And the impressive twists that keep you hoping things will turn out alright, even as you suspect they will not.

Conclusion

In reading The Tangled Lands, I found myself fascinated with the conflict between the danger of using magic and the desperate need for it. I couldn’t help but compare this central problem to the danger of wringing out earth’s natural resources to the (perceived) desperate need of many to continue using them. We look back at past empires and admire them, then look toward a bleak future, knowing that a little dabble now will harm someone else, but that in the end, our actions will come back to bite us as the consequences become all-encompassing.

This book felt like it was made as an intersection of many of my personal interests. I don’t know who out there may have my exact reading tastes, but I would happily recommend The Tangled Lands for others to read.


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Book Review: The Hatch by Michelle Saftich

Introduction

The Hatch by Michelle Saftich takes readers through a dystopian future in which humanity has begun colonizing other life-supporting planets, while the humans who remain on earth must survive the planet’s harsh climate in tiny bunkers several levels below ground. EASA, a totalitarian government and spearhead of planetary exploration, utilizes all resources in the search, including psychics like Britta, her mother, and her brother, who can astral project to search light years of space for new homes without ever leaving earth. Yet both Britta’s mother and brother have gone missing, each after visiting Nattalia, the most livable planet in the galaxy. Britta must follow mysterious visions and hints from higher meaning to find them, lost in the farthest reaches of space.

Review

The only part of The Hatch that I enjoyed was the moment at the end when Britta and everyone she loves faces execution for their crimes against the government (because of course they do). In spite of technological advancement in a Utopian society on the most livable planet in the galaxy, the citizens left over after a brief but brutal civil war get whipped up into a frenzy to stone the criminals to death. I found myself, at least, interested in the juxtaposition between civility and barbarism, the way pain and suffering reduced even the most satisfied people to rock throwing monkeys as soon as they had a scapegoat to blame for what happened. I wanted to see what Britta and company could possibly do to get out of this one. Unlike the rest of the story, there were at last up against a wall.

But almost at once after that, a deus ex machina swooped in to save them. Even the injuries they had suffered were healed. No consequences whatsoever. This kind of unwillingness to push the characters sets the tone for the entire book. Britta always got what she wanted with the barest breath of a struggle. People in charge let themselves be convinced to see things her way just because she had a power they all typically doubted. The parents were all perfect, including the ones who abandoned their son on earth to abusive foster parents. The romantic subplot became more of the main plot on several occasions, slowing down the pacing of the narrative and adding not very much at all. And while I recognized after a while that Britta could describe in accurate detail the feelings of everyone she met because she was an empath, this took all the mystery out of every character interaction and made her seem almost godlike in her ability to always comprehend the emotional motive behind every action.

Conclusion

Given that The Hatch included some science fiction touchstones like cryosleep, space gateways, and actual aliens, the world building could satisfy readers of lite sci-fi, which is totally okay. The closest comparison I can give to this book is a cross between Ender’s Game and Mass Effect. So if you like those but with the stakes much lower, you might find in The Hatch a nice, cozy read.

My rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.23


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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Introduction

Following the events of the first four Murderbot Diaries novellas, Network Effect by Martha Wells delivers a long-form adventure for our favorite anxious SecUnit. When its human clients get kidnapped by a familiar research transport and unfamiliar humanoids, Murderbot must fight to keep all the humans alive while trying to figure out a way out of a hostile situation. Featuring members of Murderbot’s previous crew, the fierce child of Murderbot’s favorite fierce human, and a certain research transport with a charming acronym, the story follows Murderbot’s battle to evolve as fast as the situation changes.

Plot

The narrative of Network Effect covers the importance of humanity and artificial intelligences working together to achieve the impossible: freedom for those enslaved, whether humanoid or robotic. Taking place in a chunk of space abandoned twice by the corporations responsible for terraforming planetary hopefuls, the story picks up after Murderbot and ART parted ways, with them leading their customary lives of security detail for the leader of a free planet and transporting around anti-establishment academics who forge documentation to free indentured humans from bondage, respectively.

But the research vessel gets itself in trouble when the planet its academics hope to free turns out to have an alien remnant hellbent on escaping its planetary prison to infect the universe. Dragged out into this forgotten sector erased from map coordinates, Murderbot finds itself with no chance of rescue. It must solve these overwhelming problems on its own.

Characters

Though Murderbot gets the gift of starting the story alongside some of its friends, such as Pin Lee and Ravi, it now has to contend with Dr. Mensah’s brother-in-law, Thiago, who does not trust the ungoverned SecUnit, and Mensah’s stubborn and intelligent daughter, Amana. Murderbot has grown enough to admit that it has friends and likes helping and protecting them, but starting over with new humans who did not come along for that journey makes gaining their trust a struggle all over again. Especially when Murderbot would rather be allowed to watch media or just get on with its job without human interference. Or, worse, shows of affection.

Yet with the re-entrance of an old acquaintance, Murderbot gets to revisit little pockets of peace through sharing media. The narrative covers the autonomy of constructs, but more than that, the ways respect for personhood and botdom can lead to friendship.

Review

My favorite part of Network Effect was all of Network Effect. I would happily live in that world and Murderbot’s mind full of scathing criticisms of incompetence, admissions of inability, and growth as it continues to learn how to be a person. I couldn’t get enough of the HelpMe.file snippets showing Murderbot’s normal life and inner conflicts in between the action. Though a good-sized book, the snappy pace of Wells’s writing led to me to devour the story almost in one sitting (alas, I have a day job).

As always, I appreciated the anxious desire to do a perfect job, the acceptance of Murderbot from others with the occasional gentle reprimand, and the catharsis of letting the savagery out when lines get crossed. Anyone who loved the first four books will love this healthy dose of everything that makes Murderbot’s life relatable.

Conclusion

In addition to the narrative’s human drama and space opera hijinks, Murderbot’s inner voice and its obvious attempts at “unreliable narrator” crack me up. When I read most of the book, I spent my whole evening snorting in amusement, along with the occasional cackle of glee. I also cried at one point, I think. Network Effect reaches out and grips your heart, but makes the experience fun the whole way. I recommend this book to anyone whose hands I can push it into saying read it read it read it. (Spoiler alert: I have already done this once. Expect many more.)

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.47 stars


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My Top 10 Favorite Books Written by or About Women

You know readers. We can never pick just one favorite book. For my part, I can’t even pick my favorite series. So many amazing books await out in the world, more than I could ever read before I die. To keep this post short, I had to narrow down the parameters to my top ten favorite books written by or about women.

While I spend my life trying to read the most moving, the most truthful, and the most meaningful novels out there, a few have drawn me back into their welcoming pages over and over. I have reread every one of the books below and keep most of them on my (limited) bookshelves. (Only Sabriel still lives at my local library, but I will own a copy someday.)

Nothing makes me happy quite like when I meet someone who has read one of these, or who decides to read them at my suggestion. Please check them out. They’re arranged in no particular order. If you’ve read any of these, I would love to hear what you thought!

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Though I loved The Raven Boys, the first installment in the Raven Cycle, I fell deeply into Stiefvater’s writing in The Dream Thieves, which released just after I finished the first book. Imagine characters you know so well as to be your friends. Imagine they stumbled upon magic, the dangerous kind, and upon each other, dangerous people. Want so big and impossible as to swallow up existence. All set against the backdrop of Virginia’s mysterious Shenandoah Valley.

Her writing hooks itself like thorny vines into my veins. The narrative driven by these characters makes me breathless for flashed smiles, daring choices, and the strength of unbreakable friendship.


The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh, look. Another book by Maggie Stiefvater. (Spoiler alert: there is not a single one of her stories I have not enjoyed.)

I first bought The Scorpio Races for my mom’s birthday, even though I had never read it. While sitting within the massive shadow of a Gander Mountain sign, hoping to sell a litter of puppies to passersby, I read the first several chapters aloud to my mom.

I may or may not have later asked several times if she was done with the book yet so I could read it.

Every year in October or November, I reread The Scorpio Races. Nothing else I have read evokes the magic of fall and deadly horses the way this book does.


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

I’m not even sure how I wound up reading Six of Crows. My friend had convinced me to read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha Trilogy. I recall standing in a Barnes & Noble with her as she gushed over the book’s beautiful, black-edged pages. Maybe she handed it to me one day in that Read this! way some readers will do.

I had never loved heist stories before reading Six of Crows. As a fantasy heist, The Lies of Lock Lamora could not begin to compare to Six of Crows and its sequel for sheer brilliance of maneuvering, tactics, risk, and stakes. And beyond that, each and every character breathes with life, cleverness, and desperation for a better life.


Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

In Tamora Pierce’s lengthy, multi-installment series about the country of Tortall, the Trickster’s Choice duology comes at the very last. I own every one of her books, but for me, none compare to this one.

Two words: fantasy spies. The daughter of a rogue and a knight who becomes embroiled in the espionage of a foreign country as she works to prove herself a capable spymaster. She’s fun-loving and sly, surrounded by clever and brave characters who grow dangerous enough to stage a coup.

I have ever loved the rogue and spy tropes. Perhaps this book is why.


Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

You want a fantasy, underground (literally) reimagining of World War II and the Holocaust, mixed with giant flying bats, kickass princesses, and prophecies? The Underland Chronicles have exactly that and more. I love this entire series, more even than Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. But the fifth and last grips me the most.

Lines have been drawn, alliances made and severed. The main character has experienced loss, betrayal, and growth as a young man and warrior into a deadly fighting machine. Gregor and the Code of Claw puts Gregor through the wringer of all-out war. I love tracing his journey to this point, from kid to adventurer to soldier, training to become deadly enough to protect the mysterious world he loves.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Anxious? Just want to be left alone to do your thing? Have only a specialized skill set at which you are very, very good? Don’t know what you want out of life? Sarcastic and cynical?

If so, you will love Murderbot. I identify so hard with the protagonist of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a SecUnit designed for security and nothing else, that hacked its own governor module in order to… keep pretending to work just so it could watch media serials. Where ‘pretend’ means do a top notch job while worrying about the quality of the work performed. Y’know, like we all do.

Eight chapters of thrilling action, touching moments, wonderful characters, and seething intrapersonal conflict makes up this first installment in a quartet of novellas, all set within a seamless science fiction interstellar society.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Whenever I talk about good books about necromancy, I always laud Sabriel by Garth Nix as the best. Beyond a wonderful story about a strong and thoughtful young woman adventuring in a land full of monsters and finding a boy to love and protect along the way, the narrative covers all the delectable little necromancy things I love. From a representation of the River Styx to the death knell of a bandolier of small bells to a lineage of necromancers who, instead of raising the dead, send them back down the river where they belong.

This story brought me in to the presentation of trained wizards living in a modern age (that being a World War I era fantasy world), mixing ancient magic and rune-inscribed swords with modern inventions like firearms and flying machines. I practically vibrated with happiness through the whole read and couldn’t get enough of some of the beautiful and haunting diction. In my opinion, Sabriel is the best necromancy story.


Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

I have spent many a moment admiring the cover art of Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman. In this sequel to Eon, in which Eona pretended to be a boy in a desperate bid for power and status, Eona must now face her identity as a woman. I loved following her struggle to grasp for power in a man’s world by attempting to erase herself, only to discover that doing so lost her the most important aspect of her life, her connection to the queen of the dragons that controlled the land.

This story inspired me so much when Eona discovered she could find strength in her truth instead of viewing womanhood as weakness. The journey across two books to find her way is filled with splendid characters, a variety of perspectives, and incredible power plays and counter plays, all set against the beautiful backdrop of fantasy China.


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Remember from before when I mentioned I love rogues? And tough women? Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett has both, as well as playful, fun banter, deadly peril, clandestine operations, and underdog struggles to save everyone in the awful city of Tevanne from several individuals, each with ambitions to be become a god.

I love how the unfolding of the narrative brings the four main characters together: a rogue, a paladin, and two artificers, to use some tropey language. Oh, and a talking key. Though the characters all begin at odds with each other, they soon find that their goals align as they uncover secrets about the magical method of scriving, secrets that upend everything they know about their world.

Also, there’s a fabulous LGBTQIA+ element, but I won’t spoil. Wink.


The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

In The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Myfanwy wakes up in a park with amnesia, surrounded by dead bodies. The rest of the story follows her discovery that she, pre-amnesia, knew this would happen and left clues and helpful notes to herself to be able to resume her life and find out who would do this to her.

As an office worker firmly planted in the corporate world myself, I appreciate the descriptions of Myfanwy’s experience starting over with a blank slate to discover the person she always could have been as she navigates her high stakes job and office politics. The office life interwoven with supernatural bureaucracy cracks me up. The intricate mystery of finding herself and uncovering her attempted murderer keeps me turning the pages on every read.


If you’ve read any of these novels, I would love to hear what you thought! If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?!


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Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, orphaned, broadsword-wielding Gideon Nav makes a bid for freedom from a life of servitude on the claustrophobic planet of the Ninth House, but the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer and bone manipulation prodigy, thwarts Gideon’s attempt at escape, demanding the swordswoman’s help in exchange for her freedom. The Emperor has summoned the heirs of all the houses to the planet of the First House to participate in a deadly competition to gain immortality and sit at his right hand. Harrowhark cannot win without Gideon, but it turns out that Gideon also cannot survive without Harrowhark.

The narrative of Gideon the Ninth follows Gideon Nav’s foray into pretending to work with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, her lifelong enemy and tormentor, for a chance at freedom. But upon their arrival at the First House, the fabled home of the Emperor himself to which he may never return, they receive no explanation and only one rule for the trial set before them. Exploration and puzzle-solving ensue as the various heirs and their cavaliers execute different strategies to unlock the secrets of the ten-thousand year old, crumbling palace, stumbling across futuristic technology and ancient rituals alike.

Between snarky remarks and witty ripostes, Gideon and Harrowhark begin to learn more about each other and how to function as a team, even as the trial turns deadlier and deadlier. They begin the story as hated enemies and remain that way for a long time, until they catch themselves saving each other’s lives. As contestants fall around them left and right at the hands of a mysterious murderer, secrets long-kept start to surface, drawing them together.

The moment in Gideon the Ninth that sticks out to me the most happened when members of one of the houses had conned a coveted key from a character Gideon really (really) likes. It was dueling time, and though the smart thing to do was to stay out of the rising tensions between the houses, Gideon badly wanted to fight for that key. When Harrowhark announced that the Ninth House would represent the Sixth House in the match, some of the combatants got snippy about the move. Harrowhark simply said, “Death first to vultures and scavengers.” First, this moment represents Harrowhark at last caring about Gideon’s desires enough to allow her something she wanted, regardless of whether Harrowhark disagreed. Second, this also shows a tiny, tiny sliver of the way Harrowhark felt about the other houses’ taking advantage of an invalid; proof that she hid a fragment of honor beneath those layers of arrogance. This line also highlights the sudden moments of weighty syntax sprinkled within witty comments and sharp retorts throughout the narrative. Beyond just a delightful emphasis on the necromantic vibe in such short supply within the fantasy genre, brilliantly lively characters, and an even mix of action, exploration, and fighting, readers will enjoy the speedy and clever wording that had me laughing out loud.

As the first installment in The Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth already has me hooked. I have to read the next books to solve the mysteries of Gideon’s past and her future – who and where did she come from? how will she continue in the state she’s left in at the end of the book? I rarely spend large swathes of time on reading these days, but as the book picked up in pace, I wound up reading the entire last half in one sitting. My only issue was the uniquely bad feeling I get when reading about enemies to lovers, as I find the unlikelihood of forgiveness for years of oppression and torment difficult to overcome in my suspense of disbelief. However, I love so, so much of the rest and I recognize that this hangup may only be mine, so I would recommend Gideon the Ninth to any readers who love the necromancy aesthetic, who are looking for a lesbian slow-burn, and who appreciate, as I did, a masculine-coded woman character.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.23 stars


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