A few mini-reviews, January 2016 edition

I’ve read more than 30 books since the last book I reviewed, so I’m just going to do a few 1-paragraph reviews in an attempt to catch up.

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

thephilosopherkingsSequel to The Just City, which I loved. This was one of my most anticipated reads this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty different book from The Just City, and starts off with the very unpromising note of the death of one of my favorite characters from the last book. But it goes on to explore the nature of grief, and what it means to be your best self regardless of circumstances in an incredibly thoughtful way. The new characters are compelling, and it’s fun to see more of the world. And the ending is a doozy, I really cannot wait for the next book, which is going to be entirely different from the last book again.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

themechanicalThis book had been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I was introduced to the world by Tregillis’ short story in the anthology Human for a Day about a clockwork android seeking his freedom from the compulsion that drives him to be a slave. Tregillis later developed the short story into The Mechanical (I’m only linking to that Reddit AMA because I asked the question.) The series is set in an alternate history where the Dutch empire has conquered the world through its invention of mechanical servitors called Clakkers, and New France is the primary opposition, although it is on the brink of defeat. We follow, among others, Jax, a Clakker that longs for his freedom, and Berenice, the spymaster of New France as they fight against the empire. The world and politics are fascinating, I found the characters a little flat at times. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is out next month.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

theendofallthingsI really enjoy the Old Man’s War universe, so this was a no-brainer pre-order for me. Just like The Human Division, this is a series of loosely connected stories that tells a larger tale. Scalzi’s trademark wit is in full evidence, and the political shenanigans his characters get up to are always fun to read about. I was surprised that the ongoing CDF/Earth/Conclave story arc was actually wrapped up pretty neatly, since there are more books scheduled to be written in the universe. I’m looking forward to see where Scalzi takes the story next.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadowsofselfThis is the sequel to The Alloy of Law, set 300 years after the original Mistborn trilogy. Pretty much everything you expect from Brandon Sanderson and Mistborn – fun characters, amazing magic-system innovations and worldbuilding, a very, very effective plot twist and terrible puns. I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of banter/action, and not enough character moments, but I’m excited that the next book comes out in January – only three months after this book.


Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Adventures, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Old Man's War, #6)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Thessaly, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Karen Memory” by Elizabeth Bear

KarenMemoryI was excited to get a copy of Karen Memory because I enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy – it had an epic scope, a great unconventional setting and subverted a whole bunch of stereotypes of women in fantasy. Karen Memory is pretty different in both setting and tone (steampunk adventure featuring a lesbian prostitute protagonist), but it was still superb.

Karen Memery is a “seamstress” at Madam Damnable’s upscale brothel Hôtel Mon Cherie in the burgeoning Rapid City. When Madam Damnable offers sanctuary to a girl escaping from the harsh conditions of Peter Bantle’s rather lower-scale establishment, he swears retribution and Karen gets swept up into the adventure of her life, involving a legendary lawman, a serial killer, a plot against the United States and more.

Karen’s first-person narration really sells this book – she’s down to earth, but has a sharp wit, plain-spoken but charismatic, and most importantly, is full of heart.  She’s had a tough life, and she doesn’t run away from that, but neither does she doesn’t let that stop her from being optimistic. It’s apparent that she’s no lady, but she’s definitely someone you’d want as a friend.

All the supporting characters feel like people you’d want to know too. Of course there’s Priya, the indentured girl rescued from Bantle and Karen’s love interest – she’s whip-smart and has a core of steel, despite being abused. She’s a full, three-dimensional person that is treated as such and isn’t really exoticized at all despite being from India, which is pretty amazing (I’ve met people in real life who have the best intentions but feel like they have to treat me differently because I’m from India, so I really mean that it’s amazing). There’s the kind but determined U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who was a real person, and Tomoatooah, his badass Numu posseman, and Merry Lee the also-badass woman that rescued indentured slaves. And all the other girls at the Hôtel Mon Cherie have their own distinct personalities without any reference to what they do for a living (something that is carried over from the Eternal Sky trilogy and sorely missing from fantasy – a cast of mainly women that all defy stereotypes) – in fact, there’s very little sex in this book, and none actually described. Here’s Elizabeth Bear talking about how she sees that:

And the thing is, for Karen and her colleagues, prostitution is a job. It’s how they make a living, not how they identify themselves. The protagonists of most urban fantasy novels seem to work waiting tables or as private investigators, if they’re not starving artists. Either their job is the adventure, or it’s something that provides a gateway to the adventure, but we’re never supposed to care too much about the job qua job itself!

So Karen’s job gives her an entry into her adventure—but it certainly doesn’t define her. And to me, the adventure is the interesting thing. She’s not having adventures or being a good person in spite of being a prostitute. She’s a prostitute, and she also gets to have adventures.

The protagonist and the characters are the most charming things about Karen Memory, but it’s also a damn good adventure story. The pacing is excellent, and the stakes keep getting higher – what starts off as a simple mission to rescue Priya’s sister turns into helping Marshal Reeves find his killer, which turns into an attempt to stop Peter Bantle’s political ambition, and that leads into even more trouble. Karen grows as a character, learning to move on from her father’s death, discovering talents she didn’t know she had, and falling in love.

I’m not super well-read in the steampunk genre, but I’ve learned to be wary of stories that are all about the gadgets. The steampunk elements in this book, though prevalent and integral to the plot, are just everyday items in the world Karen lives in. Gadget fans won’t be disappointed either – there’s the mandatory airship trip and a cool submersible, as well as some very useful household and medical devices – but they are just supplements to the plot and characters.

I really need to go back and read Elizabeth Bear’s earlier work – between this and Eternal Sky, she’s shown she has incredible range.


Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Scar” by China Miéville

After three self-published books, I return to traditional publishing, Miéville and my 25 book challenge.

The Scar is set in Bas Lag, the world of the city-state of New Crobuzon, last seen in Perdido Street Station. Bellis Coldwine, a linguist, is escaping her beloved city of New Crobuzon because of the events of Perdido Street Station (no spoilers, but you’ll recognise some references if you’ve read it) by enlisting as a translator on a colony and prison ship. The ship carries a very disparate group of people, all looking to leave New Crobuzon for various reasons. Then they get attacked by pirates, and recruited to be colonists of an entirely different place – Armada, the floating city.

The world of Bas Lag is incredibly well-realised, and we meet more species and go to far more places than we did in Perdido Street Station. I’ve raved about Miéville’s world-building before, and I will continue to do so in the future. The descriptions of Armada make for spectacular reading – a floating city, built from ships and platforms.

Bellis is an interesting protagonist – she’s an established woman over forty, and I have read very few books that feature people like her. She’s a pretty cold person, but she’s also extremely sad at having to leave her home of New Crobuzon. I wasn’t really sure whether I liked her, but she was certainly a good protagonist. The other characters of the novel were also fun – I liked Silas Fennec and Tanner Sack (in very different ways), and Shekel’s thirst for learning was endearing.

The plot went along at a steady pace, and was pretty engaging. I didn’t see a couple of the twists and turns coming. The ending disappointed me a little bit, because so much was left up in the air.

I have the same problems with this as I have with any Miéville book – it’s a bit cold. I probably would have more to say about this if I hadn’t read The City & the City so recently. Overall, a pretty good book.

This is book 20 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


The Scar by China Miéville (Bas-Lag, #2)
Ballantine Books, 2002 | Buy the book