27 Aug

Reading Challenge: August 2019

Anybody else fed up to here *waves hand far above head* with people who say they were misled by unanimously 5-star reviews for a book that actually had absolutely no redeeming qualities who then immediately say they don’t leave negative reviews because “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” ensuring the unanimously 5-star reviews on the irredeemably awful book remain unchallenged to mislead the next unsuspecting reader? Given a choice between protecting an unprepared writer’s fee-fees and protecting an innocent reader’s time and money, the priority ought to be the reader who deserves better, not the person who published a book and enlisted pals and family to lie about the quality.

(This isn’t about any book listed here, by the way, just general venting. I’m fairly safe since my policy is to never read anything that has no 1-star reviews because, ironically, unanimous praise is a red flag for a shit book no one has actually read. Nothing is universally beloved, and somebody who doesn’t believe coddling the author is the most important thing would say so.)

Cover of N. K. Jemisin's The Killing MoonTHE KILLING MOON by N. K. Jemisin: This is a complex, many-threaded story that doesn’t lend itself well to a quick summary, but here goes. Most of the spotlight falls upon Ehiru, who survived massacre of the royal family as a child only because he’d been claimed by the church for Hananja, goddess of dreams, to become a Gatherer—one who ushers souls through the dream world into the afterlife, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes as the penalty for corruption. Usually by his side is his new apprentice, Najiri, who is deeply in love with and devoted to Ehiru. Najiri’s first observation run as an apprentice is supposed to be Sunandi, a political operative from another kingdom whom Ehiru is told to gather because she’s corrupt, but she appeals to his sense of justice by revealing she’s up to her neck in corruption of another’s making. Surprise, surprise, the church is being used as an assassination service by the palace.

Works well as a standalone. I have it in a bundle with the sequel, THE SHADOWED SUN, but the first ends with such finality, I felt no urgency to continue with the second immediately. I’ll come around to it again later, though, probably after a string of rage-quits when I’m desperate for an author I can trust.

Cover of Nevernight by Jay KristoffNEVERNIGHT by Jay Kristoff: Mia Corvere watched her father’s execution for charges of treason. Shortly afterward, his enemies seized all his property, imprisoned his wife, and ordered his spawn killed. Mia escaped her would-be murderers and found herself a mentor who trained her to be an assassin. He sends her in search of an elite assassin-training school because she’ll need to level up in order to achieve her goal of getting revenge against the most powerful, well-protected men in the realm.

Since Arya is the only Stark child I never wanted to slap, I’m here for baby-assassin stories.

I became aware of this series when the cover of the forthcoming third book caught my eye, so I bought this one last month when it was on sale and moved it up in the queue because the second book is on sale this month and I needed to know if that was worth grabbing, too. Before purchasing this book (I’m not completely influenced by pretty images and typography), I read the first two scenes in the sample, which are, respectively, sex and murder repeating similar language, which I thought was cool. It turns out that’s less cool when those alternating scenes go on and on and on and on. The murder is plot relevant. The sex isn’t, so there’s way too much attention devoted to a 16-year-old girl fucking, which (a) is squicky* and (b) steals the thunder from her murderous proclivities that are the point of the story.

I bailed at 13%, after a flashback to six years ago and then a flashforward to the crisis point of an action situation we hadn’t been anywhere near prior to the flashback and then a flash-two-weeks-back to explain how we got into that situation. We didn’t go anywhere during the six-years-ago flashback. No present-time elapsed during that flashback interlude (as would be the case if cutting to a scene with a different character performing simultaneous action in the same timeline). So jumping ahead of where we left off and then going back to explain how we got to “ahead,” apart from being pointless, means we must eventually return to “ahead” in order to progress beyond “ahead,” and when we get back to “ahead,” the options are repeating what we’ve already read or doing more unnecessary leaping forward in chronology. I AM NOT A FAN OF EITHER OF THESE OPTIONS. It’s heavy-handed authorial intrusion for the sake of being “clever” at the expense of telling a story cleanly. Stories should flow forward—which does not mean adhering to a linear timeline but that every scene, regardless of its chronological placement, needs to advance the plot. Flashbacks are backstory. You trot them out when the reader needs information about the past to understand what happens NEXT, thereby (albeit at a reduced pace) furthering the forward momentum. Jumping forward so far you have to slam on the brakes and throw the story into reverse to cover territory there’s no reason you couldn’t have driven through in the normal way is the opposite of forward momentum. /end rant

Approximately half the scenes (at least up to the point where I quit) are in italics courtesy of flashbacks, so if you have issues with eye fatigue, this book may be physically unreadable. It’s up there with The Rook (Daniel O’Malley) as the most unpleasantly formatted novel I’ve ever seen thanks to the overabundance of slanty text.

*Many 16-year-olds have sex. As long as it’s safe and consensual, that’s fine. The squick factor is adults writing about teen sex that’s not relevant to plot or character development in 15 pages of excruciating detail like it’s spank material.

Cover of Caitlin Starling's The Luminous DeadTHE LUMINOUS DEAD by Caitlin Starling: Gyre lied about her experience to get a lucrative job exploring a cave for what she thinks is a mining survey. Only after she’s underground is it revealed this is a personal pet project of her handler, Em, who’s trying to reach the site where her father and his companions died decades ago. Gyre keeps finding much fresher bodies, and Em confesses she’s sent 35 prior missions—and 27 of those cavers ended up dead. Gyre needs the money to get off the crappy mining colony, but she also wants to put an end to Em obsessively sending cavers to their deaths, so she’s determined to get all the way to the goal, despite the corpses, missing supply caches, and giant tunneling worms causing collapses and flooding that killed so many of her predecessors.

At one point, something in the text made me laugh about how fantastically lit movies set in caves are. There is zero natural light down there, and any light source of a size able to be carried on your body is short on darkness-penetrating power. Gyre is plugged into an Iron Man suit with a 3D rendering on a screen right in front of her face to substitute for vision most of the time, but sometimes she turns that off and relies on her headlamp and eyeballs to get her bearings. The suit seems like a cheat that would make everything easier (seeing in impenetrable darkness, staving off hypothermia, body armor, etc.), but (1) it’s substituting for and muting her own senses (hello, sensory deprivation and all its effects on the psyche), (2) it’s literally wired into her neurologic system so it responds to her movements and she can’t just strip it off (trapped! trapped! trapped!—especially if she runs out of batteries and can no longer move her mechanical arms), and (3) it’s subject to being hijacked by anyone on the surface who has computer access (including Em and random hackers), in which case Gyre loses her free will. The suit sounds like a nightmare in and of itself, honestly.

The combination of stress, environmental contamination, and the nightmare suit leads to Gyre “seeing” people who have been dead for years, so she’s obviously having hallucinations. Em sometimes contradicts what Gyre (the sole narrator) has reported to the reader, but Em is established early on as less than trustworthy, so there’s a tendency to take Gyre’s side as “truth” in those disputes—until she starts backtracking in the cave and things aren’t the way she reported leaving them, and it’s clear at that point nothing she believes is reliable. There’s a skillful balance of the obvious hallucinations and plausible external interference, casting just the right amount of doubt on what may or may not be real and generating a good amount of reader anxiety.

For the second time this year, I think a book would have been more satisfying with a less-optimistic ending. Gyre is physically and emotionally traumatized by the experience, and although the ending isn’t unicorns-and-rainbows kind of happy, it’s too neat and tidy, too soon, given what came before. I needed either something messier or a better explanation of how so much of that trauma got shrugged off so quickly.

Since the fifth book in this series is coming out soon, I thought it would be a good idea to catch up and see if it’s worth continuing.

Cover of Ash and Quill by Rachel CaineASH AND QUILL by Rachel Caine: The third Great Library book. The gang is now imprisoned by rebel Burners in the walled city of Philadelphia, which the Library’s army has been bombarding from without for a hundred years. The Burners oppose the whole concept of the Library controlling all written knowledge, while the gang thinks taking down the corrupt current management will restore the correct order, which involves the continued rule of the Library. Since their goals don’t precisely align with their captors’, the gang has to (a) make themselves useful to avoid execution, (b) find a way to use their captors to further their own agenda without giving them the tools to destroy the entire Library, and (c) escape their enemies on both sides of the war. The engineer’s printing press model is at the heart of (a) and (b), and the protagonist smuggler’s sneaky criminal tendencies are the bulk of (c), with tons of support from the rest of a cast that is remarkably lacking in dead weight.

Since book 1, I’d envisioned the London of this alt-universe as Victorian, and Alexandria with that same level of development, but this book moves to Philadelphia and begins in a sports stadium made of concrete, which seemed jarringly modern and sent me down a research rabbit hole trying to wrap my head around the abrupt shift of perception. Shibe Park was built of steel and concrete in 1901 (the year Victoria died, so barely in the Victorian period). However, the story world is in the midst of a revolution. Burners don’t impress me as big enough baseball fans to construct a stadium in the middle of their war of principle, so the stadium had to be there well before even the earliest days of said war, which has been going on for a hundred years. So if said concrete sports stadium was constructed in 1901, the “present” can’t be any earlier than the early 21st century, which has a level of day-to-day technology inconsistent with my impression of the previous two books. “But Ren,” you say. “The tech in this book also involves mechanical murder lions and primitive teleportation, so you’re overthinking this.” To which I reply: I hadn’t thought about it AT ALL for two entire books before the concrete sports stadium. Now I’m thinking about how, if the Library controls all written knowledge, they would have influenced all of the technology, all of the architecture, all of the arts and entertainment for centuries… and we ended up with exactly the same relatively modern concrete sports stadium we have in a world that isn’t controlled by the Library but not the cars and airplanes and electric lights and everything else that immediately establishes a modern setting that can’t possibly be mistaken for a Victorian one. A concrete sports stadium is an oddly specific marker of modernity. If not for “concrete” (which is never mentioned again), I might have presumed Philly at some point in its alternate history built a version of the Colosseum that had hosted its sporting events for centuries, but now we’ve introduced real-world shit and I’m unmoored in space and time, which made it hard for me to settle into the story until more than a third of the way through. Full credit to the strong characterization that kept me invested enough to persevere.

Turns out I already bought the fourth book at some point in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism. Fortunately, my trouble with the timeline didn’t rise to the level where that purchase was a waste of money. (I have absolutely purged unread books when the author has lost my trust, which is why I no longer have optimism about blindly collecting books. My policy has become “one strike and you’re dead to me,” so having a pile of unread books by any author is unnecessarily risky.) Pressing onward, but not in any great rush.

Then I tried reading a career-switching book, knowing it was not aimed at me but thinking there might be something I could adapt to my situation, and holy shit, some people live in an entirely different world. “It’s easier than you think to cut $1000 a month from your budget!” Let’s see… if I make the small lifestyle change of HOMELESSNESS, I can save on rent and utilities to absorb that pay cut. I have no sympathy for the “plight” of anyone who can SURVIVE on $1000 less per month, since someone in my house would literally have to die before that would be remotely possible. That book inspired my career change to building and selling artisanal guillotines but was useless for its stated purpose of guiding me through that transition.

Cover of Witchmark by C. L. PolkWITCHMARK by C. L. Polk: Miles Singer is a doctor of mental health at a veterans’ hospital in a fictional land that has been in a lengthy war that it recently “won.” He’s also a witch and can see that many of his patients are infected with some kind of sentient funk that gives them murderous delusions. One night, he treats an emergency off the street—a dying reporter who says he was poisoned for discovering something the soldiers deserve to know. The dying man was delivered by Tristan Hunter, who is that world’s version of Fae—ridiculously attractive, basically immortal, legendarily heartless—and slumming in the mortal ream to investigate why human souls have stopped showing up in the realm where they go after death. The troubled patients, the dead reporter, the missing souls, witch politics, the war, and Miles’s family drama are all parts of the same whole, and Miles and Tristan work together to figure out the connection and stop bad things from happening. Also, they smooch.

Despite the tightly packed plot, much of which involves dark subject matter, it’s kind of a sedate book, perfect when you want something that won’t stress you out. The primary mode of transportation in the story is bicycle, and that echoes the pacing—there’s a high-speed bicycle chase and even a smash-and-grab collision for excitement, but it’s subdued compared to car-chase-and-explosion standards. It’s pleasant.

Like the Jemisin book at the top of the post, although there’s a second book, this one ends with enough finality to stand alone if you’re not keen on committing to a series.

Cover of Noumenon by Marina J. LostetterNOUMENON by Marina J. Lostetter: Content warning for off-page suicide.

Reggie Straifer is an astrophysicist who discovers an anomalous star and convinces a committee that exploring it deserves one of their deep space exploration missions. “Cool!” I thought. “Let’s go investigate, Reg!” If I had read the description more carefully and paid attention to the warning that it’s “in a series of vignettes,” I could have saved myself some money and time because I’m well aware “mosaic novels” aren’t to my taste.

Deep space missions don’t get whipped up overnight, so Reggie’s an old man by the time the proposal he made as a young man comes to fruition. He’s gone 10% into the book, so don’t get attached to him. Don’t get attached to any other character, either, because you also don’t get to a distant star overnight. These are generation ships, and everybody involved at the start of the journey is going to be centuries dead by the end of it. And that’s why I don’t like these kinds of stories—there’s no character to get invested in. The journey is only as interesting as the people taking it; it’s meaningless on its own.

I quit after the second “vignette,” which spent a lot of time explaining science at the expense of the human element. There were several suicides because people had difficulty adjusting to what was, for the first generation that grew up on earth, an unnatural environment, but we’re not going to explore that or deal with any consequences because moving on to the next vignette! As this is the antithesis of my jam, I’m moving on entirely.

Cover of Empire of Sand by Tasha SuriEMPIRE OF SAND by Tasha Suri: Mehr is the daughter of an imperial governor and an Amrithi nomad with magic in her blood. The Amrithi are considered barbarians, but Mehr’s privileged position in the governor’s palace protects her not only from persecution but also from the knowledge that other Amrithi are gone, likely hunted to extinction by the emperor’s mercenaries. One night, she uses her mother’s traditions to guide her through a magical storm and attracts the attention of the religious sect’s mystics, who suggest she marry one of their guys lest the gods be displeased and strip her father of his position and all that comes with it. To protect her father and younger sister from the obvious threat, Mehr agrees to bind her soul to a mysterious and frightening stranger.

The Amrithi are the descendants of daiva, who are the descendants of the gods, so Mehr is respectful when she encounters the spirits of the desert. The mystics, however, believe the daiva are to be used, as are the sleeping gods, to shape the empire on its path to world domination. Her new husband, Amun, is enslaved by the mystics and has no choice but to do their bidding, but he finds ways to delay Mehr from being similarly bound even as he trains her to perform the rite that will control the gods. Amun’s a good guy. There’s actually a nice romance despite the horrifying circumstances of being in the midst of a racist, brainwashed cult. (In fact, toward the end, it was hitting so many genre romance notes that I got irritated my romance ban had been stealth violated again and only skimmed the last chapter.) Again, it works as a standalone, so no loss if I’m not compelled to pick up the sequel.

Aaaaaand that’s it for this month so I can take my time with the new Livi Talbot book that came out today.

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