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Sixteen Books - Qualified Perceptions
Sixteen Books
The Ark and Trident's Forge (by Patrick S. Tomlinson)
These are books 1 and 2 of what will be, I think, a trilogy: Children of a Dead Earth . Book 1 is pretty stand-alone; book 2 a little less so. The premise of The Ark is that one hastily put-together generation ship escaped Earth as a rogue (or sent!) black hole was hitting the Sun. Book one is a murder mystery thriller shortly before the ship reaches the destination; book two is post-landing and the main premise is kind of a spoiler for book one. Suffice it to say that it's a different subgenre. The main character is a retired zero-g sports star, now a police chief for part of the generation ship. He's not a bad protagonist; a good paladin streak for the most part(*), traditional police frustration with higher-ups; the author lets him be seriously wrong once and he deals reasonably with it. The mystery and the politics are neither too simple nor too unbearably complex for me to keep track of (which probably means that they are overly simplified from realistic politics). Book 2's politics are a little more annoying, but maybe still realistic-ish. My biggest disappointment is a bit where the character has to essentially choose between saving a small group (including himself) and trying but failing to save a hugely larger group, in what is essentially a lifeboat ethics problem. I may have missed something in the setup to the problem, but I think he overlooks a third choice of “fill the damn lifeboat to capacity before launching it and leaving the rest”, and I lose a lot of sympathy for him. The thing that will probably stick with me for longest, though, is the reaction I had to the some of the unveiling of the premise. We find out fairly early on that the book starts shortly before turnover and arrival at the target system. That bugged me - turnover should be at the middle of the trip! Everyone knows that! You accelerate for the first half and decelerate for the second half! Or at least, decelerate while coming into the system. A while later, it is explained that the ship has an Orion drive (remember, hastily put-together), so the acceleration and deceleration are very front and end loaded, and all the ablative armor is on the front of the ship, so how it happens makes reasonable sense. Three and a half stars? Readable but not strongly memorable.

Blue Remembered Earth (by Alistair Reynolds)
I think this is the first book of Reynolds that I was kind of disappointed by. Usually he's someone I'll happily buy on audiobook - I like the world-building, and the voice tends to be thoughtful and measured, and that works well listened to for me. Though obviously I haven't read his whole bibliography; Blue Remembered Earth is the first in a trilogy, and now I have to ponder whether or not to get the rest. Anyway - I like the world-building, and the thoughtful measured pace, and the characters. And I always wanted to know what happened next, especially in a couple of interestingly tense sequences. My quibbles are more with the structure. The main plot of the book is essentially a riddle path. It's not a bad riddle path as those plots go, and it makes for a nice excuse to tour different settings on different planets. But... I am never sure why the character who set up the riddle path chose that method, and most of the people running the path also don't seem to have very strong goals for doing so. The explanation, at the end, does not quite satisfy. It rewards family (the riddle path requires a lot of family-specific knowledge, and there are even specific tests to be sure) - but some of the family members in the book clearly place family over ethics, which is a serious flaw based on the final goal. Yet, the mechanics of the riddle path are pretty darned dangerous (partly accidentally, but only partly); if you're only going to trust your family to run the path, then I would expect you also to be more careful to not push them into harm's way. Finally, if the fate of the universe was ever to rest on my ability to remember details of a gift I got for my sixth birthday, the universe would be doomed. Sorry, universe. I hate to make the comparison to a far lesser writer, but I was kind of reminded of reading Dan Brown's Inferno - why does it have to be a riddle path? That's just how the world works! Three stars.
Bookburners - Seasons 1 and 2 (by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery, Andrea Phillips, and Amal El-Mohtar)
Two volumes of a serial fiction urban fantasy about a grey ops team from the Vatican shutting down evil/dangerous/addictive magical texts. It's a fun premise (and definitely a Mike-flavored TV show), and a nice cast of characters. (I'll put a spoilery character bit at the end). The authorial swapping worked fine - I didn't find myself having a favorite author, or thinking that the voice changed between authors. But reading the serials compiled together has the same flaws as binging on TV shows, except that it's even faster. If there's a subplot that is supposed to be building over the course of several episodes, then the scenes that remind you of the subplot but don't advance it can feel a little repetitive. Every episode in Season Two has to have a conversation between Father Menchú and Asanti about whether magic is definitionally evil or just way too easy to use wrong. On the other hand, the last time I tried to read a serial as it came out (and Amazon makes it pretty easy too), I found it way too hard to remember to go back to the next installment every week. Maybe if I were getting all my fiction from monthly deliveries of magazines, it would be easy to follow the parallel stories. Ah well. Possibly not the format for me, but the content is decent, and if it's the format for you, this is probably a fine choice. Spoiler bit: The combat character, Grace, has a unique example of the angst that vampires and immortals are always prone to. Due to a magical pregame accident, she is nigh-unkillable, but her life is tied to a single (large) candle. When the candle is lit, she's alive. When it's snuffed out, she stops. When the candle burns out entirely, she's done forever. So she trusts Father Menchú to light her candle only when she's needed, to preserve and extend the time she has, and lives on average one day a week. The Father has calculated how little total time she has left; she watches her friends age terribly fast.
Then Grace spoke: “When I met Arturo Menchú, I had been alive for more than sixty years, and we looked like we were the same age. He worries about my candle. I've been watching his burn down for thirty years.”
Brilliance (by Marcus Sakey)
Brian recommended this, and I had to stop halfway through reading it to rant about three main points. (Plus that I hated the audiobook narrator, who does the women's voices in high nasal tones and the children's voices in squeaky tones, but it's not fair to hold the author responsible for that). Of my three points, he had to concede two of them, but the third is a plot point and I have to concede it. (This third point is a lot like my recurring experience reading the Dresden Files - whenever the narrative starts to focus way too much on how long it's been since Dresden has had sex, first it annoys me, and second it turns out that Lasciel is around somewhere and my annoyance should have been a clue. Sort of like “I notice that I am confused” in HPMOR is a Clue. All right, perhaps we should return from this digression rather than wandering through everything else I've read ever.)

The first point is that the characters are either people or women; the women include the beloved and sexy ex-wife, the most attractive woman ever, the “plastic-pretty and overeager” local reporter, and the seductress. I'll focus on the last one in particular. Quote one: “What he hadn't expected was this tiny, delicate thing with pale-blond hair. She had a woman's face and curves, but couldn't have been more than four foot ten, maybe ninety pounds. It had a strangely erotic effect; she was so small, you couldn't help but imagine what she looked like naked.” I... what? I'm pretty sure I know small women, and I've seen Kristin Chenoweth on TV, and I didn't imagine them naked until constructing this argument. In particular, the use of “you” instead of “he” there tries to make this an everyone thing. Whenever any person meets a small woman, they are compelled to imagine her naked. Well, okay, probably only when every heterosexual man meets a small woman, because who else would be reading the book? There's mostly only heterosexual men in existence. Next, after he realises that she has empathy powers: “The leap was intuitive, but he knew it was correct. She was an assassin. My God, how good she must be. A woman who could sense whatever a guy wanted, any guy? There was no one she couldn't get close to. No one she couldn't get alone and vulnerable. How many men has this sweet little thing seduced and murdered?” Take a look at those two sentences together. “A woman who could sense whatever a guy wanted, any guy? There was no one she couldn't get close to.” Yup, there's only heterosexual men in existence. We will give a pass to his hilariously wrong assumption that the sexy sexy seducer must be an assassin, because it is in fact wrong - but the rest of the assumptions don't get called.

My second complaint is that the action sequences are exciting, but they are incredibly tactically stupid. This series diverges from real history in 1980 when the “brilliants” - people with various sorts of INT- and PER- based superpowers - appeared, and the terrorist threat since then is a group of brilliants. Anyway, the main character (essentially an anti-brilliant black ops cop) captures a bad guy, tortures information about the location and timing of an upcoming bomb at a big public event out of him - and then he and his partner drive half an hour from New Jersey into Manhattan until they run into too much traffic, and then the main character leaves his partner in the car and runs into the event, with two minutes on the bomb's countdown timer. He has an altercation at something like T=15 seconds, with the most-attractive-woman-ever bad guy, and thus is prevented from disarming the bomb. It explodes. He blames her for this. WHY IN THE LOVE OF GOD DID HE NOT CALL IT IN? Later she claims that she was there to disarm the bomb. She blames him for preventing her. WHY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WAS SHE NOT ALREADY DONE AT T=15? The plot gets more complicated, but it's turtles filled with WHY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD all the way down.

Despite my two serious complaints and one conceded complaint, I kept reading past the halfway point, because it was in fact quite readable. As a thriller, a turtle filled with WHY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD isn't uncommon, and sadly, the male-centricity isn't that uncommon either. If I had gone in expecting popcorn, I would probably have enjoyed it a lot. (If I had gone in expecting Dan Brown, I would have been disappointed by only having several ridiculously wrong things to complain about). I went in with a higher bar than popcorn, so it fell short, but it really is high quality popcorn. Three stars.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (by Kij Johnson), and Agents of Dreamland (by Caitlin R Kiernan)
These go together for me - post-Lovecraftian Lovecraft novellas. The Dream-Quest is a lyrical dreamlike travelogue grounded in a sensible main character; Agents of Dreamland is X-Files jumpy and grim. Both are worthy.

Spell/Sword, The Riddle Box, and Asteroid Made of Dragons by G Derek Adams
A haughty wild mage and a squire with a square-shaped soul go on adventures and get chased by the anti-wild-mage death squad. Charming and sometimes funny and sometimes thoughtful, and altogether unpretentious. I enjoyed these and zoomed through them. Four small stars.
The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Thick as Thieves (by Megan Whalen Turner)
These are lovely. I listened to these on audioboook, and ran straight through my excess Audible buffer. They're a series, but each of them has its own stopping point, and they're very different as far as plot. The first book is fairly simple - a travel quest and dungeon crawl, with an unreliable narrator and character building. It's the most slow moving of the series, and it took me a while to get hooked, but the banter is sparkly and all the characters feel solid and true. The second is darker and more dramatic; the third has some Comedy of Manners to it, and the fourth and fifth focus on new characters. The setting is an interesting squabble-of-small-kingdoms overshadowed by larger empires that might eat all of them if given a good political chance. Oh, and also there's a lot of the Respect for a Worthy Adversary dynamic. Four and a half stars.
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