Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Good day my beautiful peoples!

I’ve been writing a lot over the last little bit, but I feel like I haven’t checked in enough with you lately. How are you? How’s your life? What’s new?

*Insert what’s new and/or what’s happening in your life here*

REALLY?!

(Select appropriate response from the following)

1) How dare they!

2) Go on and get it girl!

3) That’s fucking disgusting

4) Congratulations!

5) I know I’m not your mom or whatever, but I really think you should stop reading this and go see a doctor.

Whew! What a rollercoaster. Now on to the book!

I have some mixed feelings about this one.

First off, the setting and world building really worked for me. I’ve always been a fan of books that are set in really specific and underutilized (at least in the fiction that I’ve been reading) times/places and Shawl really hooked me with this one. It probably didn’t hurt that the history/social studies curriculum at my highschool was fucking gaaaaarrrrrrrbage (we basically did four consecutive years of in depth study about Canada’s contribution to the second world war) so I went into this book pig-ignorant about the Congo and all the terrible things the Belgians did there. I had a very slight idea about the horrors of the rubber industry at this point in history (thanks to David Grann’s amazing The Lost City of Z), but I wasn’t aware that the Congo was a part of that, and I had no idea the depth of the damage done to the region. Learning about the Congo (sort of, I know this isn’t a historically accurate depiction) really fascinated me and it hooked me enough that I’m currently in the market for a nonfiction history of the area (holler at me if you have any recommendations).

Unfortunately, everything else just didn’t really hit it for me. I respect the ambition of the story, it’s sprawling and huge and complicated, but I never felt overly invested in it. Part of that probably has to do with the writing, which I found a little stiff (to be fair there were moments of lyricism and beauty, though few and far between), and obviously the structure didn’t help (the chapters were told in short bursts that hopped perspectives and significant portions of time, never really allowing you to sink into or get familiar with any individual characters POV) but I think most of it had to do with the characters themselves. I never really found one I could invest in, never really connected with or cared about any of the people in this, and because of that I just felt removed and uninvolved in the story in a way that left me feeling pretty unsatisfied with it as a whole.

Listen, the concept of this was great (building a steam-punky utopian society based on moral ideals in the middle of colonial Africa is just…such a good idea. Seriously, Nisi, A++), but I think I just ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I actually liked it. I respected it, but, if I’m being honest, I didn’t really enjoy reading it. SO! If you’re planning on giving this one a go, keep that in mind.

Anywhooooodle, happy reading!

VBR

 

 

 

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps By Kai Ashante Wilson

Hey there lovelies!

So this was a really strange read for me, and by the end of it I wasn’t really sure whether I liked it or not. Let me start off by saying, I have read a lot of fantasy novels. Like, a lot a lot. And for the first few decades of my fantasy reading experience many of the novels were more alike than they were different. European setting, magic sword of some variety, white dude hero. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them, I still do, but even something you love can get a little stale if it’s the only option. By my early twenties I was a little fed up with the genre, a little tired of reading the same rehashed concepts over and over again, the same stories told from the same perspective with the same voice. And I know I’m not the only one. There’s been a big push lately in the fantasy communities for diversity, and not just for social justice reasons (although those reasons in and of themselves should be enough). I think people are finally coming to the realization that the larger and more diverse the talent pool we pull from, the better the books that we end up with.

Now this is all just a roundabout way of saying that I’ve got nothing but time for books with a fresh perspective or concept (and also an excuse for me to get a bit preachy about the homogeny of fantasy publishing). This novella, or novelette as I’ve heard it described in a couple of places, has both. The culture that it takes place in, and the voice of the characters, is refreshingly different (for me. I know there are probably plenty of great fantasies out there that take place in Africa, or an African based fantasy world, I just haven’t gotten around to a lot of them yet). And it was built on such a weird, cool blend of sci-fi and fantasy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it.

But having said that, I’m not sure if I actually liked it. Even though it’s relatively short, it took me a while to get through it. There was something about the style of the prose that kept me from ever really sinking into the book, from feeling completely immersed in the story, and I can’t really put my finger on what it was. Maybe the language was a little opaque for me, or a little abstract. Whatever it was, I found this book a little difficult to get through.

So, I think I recommend this book? Did I love it? No. But I liked it, I think. If you’re like me and you’re looking for a fantasy of a slightly different variety, I’d definitely check it out. The language didn’t always work for me, and I didn’t get that awesome lose yourself completely in a book thing from it, but I’m still happy I read it. I still think it’s good. And I’ll definitely be checking out what this guy does in the future.

Well! That’s all for today folks.

Forever yours,

Very Biased Reviewer

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Hey there team!

So this one took a little longer to read, and a lot longer to review, than I was expecting. There’s two reasons for that:

The first and foremost is that when I was about halfway through this book my grandmother passed away. She’d been suffering from bone cancer, so it was as much of a relief as these things ever are, but it was still hard. As a result, over the holidays I spent a lot more time with my family and a lot less time alone reading.

The second reason has more to do with what I want this blog to be about. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to create something, how much of yourself you put into everything you create, and how vulnerable you become when you put it out into the world. Because of that, I don’t want to be the kind of person who shits on somebody for making their art, for being committed enough to create a complete piece and brave enough to put it out there. I’d really prefer to just talk about the things that I love and that make me happy, rather than complain about the pieces that didn’t quite work for me.

At the same time, how interesting can it be if all you ever have to say about something is, “It was great!” So, I think I’m going to work against my natural instinct and review things no matter how well they worked for me. Having said that, I still think that if I don’t have anything positive at all to say about something, I’ll probably skip it. But then again, it’s been a really, really long time since I’ve read a book with nothing of value in it at all, and who knows what I’ll do when that happens. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So you’ve probably guessed by this point that Boneshaker wasn’t my favourite. It’s not as if the book doesn’t have value. It’s chock full of imagination, and Cherie Priest can definitely turn a phrase. Not only that, but Briar, one half of the books two main POV characters, is great. She’s tough, resourceful, smart, complicated, driven. She’s everything I want and need in a protagonist. In fact, the first quarter of the book, where we spend most of our time in Briar’s POV, is pretty good. It’s after that things kind of start to wobble a bit, and eventually fall apart.

Most of my problems with the second half of this book are things that I can usually just whistle past. One of my bigger complaints is that Boneshaker sets up a couple of interesting conflicts that simply fizzle out. The main one (spoilers!) is the reveal of Dr. Minnericht as just some random guy, who we know next to nothing about and don’t care about at all. Another is the fate of a character who starts out pretty interesting. He’s ambiguous and somewhat menacing and clearly just using the book’s other main protagonist, Zeke, as a means to his own end, but halfway through the novel he disappears, and at the end they find his body after he’s died of an overdose. What does that add to the story? What was the point in having the character introduced in the first place?

And here we come to my main problem with the book: Zeke. He’s…a mess. He starts out Boneshaker with agency and pluck, heading into the walled off part of Seattle in order to find out the truth about his father, but he quickly devolves into a plot device. He’s bounced from situation to situation through no fault or choice of his own. The only real purpose that he serves is to provide motivation for Briar, and to serve as the eyes through which we can view the (admittedly pretty awesome) world that Cherie created. And it’s not just his passivity that makes him seem more plot device than character, it’s his inconsistency. Cherie can never quite seem to nail down how old he is. His characterization swings from small child to capable adult and back again. And his voice! Most of the time he talks completely normally, but randomly he’ll just slip into this weird, uneducated sounding patois that’s really heavy handed and overdone.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed. This book has so many good things in it! A steampunk zombie novel with a smart female protagonist? That is crazily within my wheelhouse. It practically is my wheelhouse. But the dead weight of Zeke, and a few mismanaged conflicts and other minor characters, prevents this book from really following through on its promise.

All in all this is a pretty mixed bag for me. I haven’t given up on Cherie Priest just yet, but I won’t be running out to grab another of her novels any time soon either. If you’ve read any of her other stuff and you think it’s worth giving it a try, let me know in the comments.

Love,

VeryBiasedCritic

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

Alright, time for our first ever review! I’m excited! I’m nervous! I’m unprepared! Am I doing it right? It doesn’t feel like I’m doing it right.

Whew. Ok. Deep breaths. Let’s do it.

I just…don’t even know what to say. I’ve spent a very long time trying to figure out how to properly convey how much I enjoyed this collection, while also making you understand that I’m a smart and educated gentleman. But that hasn’t really been working, so instead I’m just going to say what I feel.

I fucking loved this book.

Oh my God did I ever love this book. Peoples, this collection holds within it what might very well be my favourite short story of all time. Considering the fact that you could probably circle the earth by laying every short story I’ve read down page to page, that’s saying something.

Even the ones that aren’t my favourite are so, so good. They’re smart, unique, emotionally affecting, and beautifully written stories. My favourite of the bunch, Story of Your Life, made me ugly cry in public. On the seabus. And I didn’t give a shit who saw me. That’s how great it was. I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because I wouldn’t want to ruin or colour your first experience of it, but even if you don’t buy the book seek this story out. It’s well worth it.

Another gem, Understand, is the only time I’ve ever read a story about an experiment or drug raising somebody up to crazy super-intelligence that I actually bought. Most of the time when you read or see something along those lines (I’m staring you right in those beautiful baby blues, Mr. Cooper) it’s the material itself that tells you that the person is a genius, not their actions. Sure, they’re depicted doing some things we know would require a full sack of smarts (counting cards, writing long, complicated novels, gaining the upper hand over foes, etc.) but they don’t really change their behaviour in any meaningful way. It’s the old problem of having writers try and write characters who punch above their own intellectual weight. It almost always ends up coming off as false at best, ridiculous at worst. Not so in Understand. Ted Chiang writes about super intelligence as if he’s lived it. The *very mild spoilers* two super intelligent characters, their actions, their conflict, the reasoning behind their conflict, and finally its resolution, all play as both believable and the inevitable consequence of their super intelligence. So great. Crazy fucking great.

Are all of them master pieces? No. But even the worst of them is pretty damn good. Tower of Babylon is inventive and well done, but a little emotionally flat, and not particularly gripping. Division by Zero, my least favourite story, might appeal more to people who have a greater love of math than I do, but I found the characters mostly uninteresting and unappealing, and the revelation at the heart of the story lacked impact. Having said that, there’s still some emotional insight there, and the relationship between the two main characters was subtle and well drawn.

Ok, so this went a lot longer than I was actually planning, and I promise in the future most reviews won’t be quite so lengthy. It’s just not very often that you get a collection of science fiction stories that are this consistently interesting and intelligent, and I felt the need to do it some sort of justice by giving it a little more space. I didn’t even get to talk about all the stories! Like the one where people can get a part of their brain altered so they no longer notice physical beauty, an act of rebellion against a media that constantly uses sexual impulse to manipulate them (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’m trying my best to paraphrase). Or a weird, steampunkian story about golems and homunculi and classicism.

Basically what I’m trying to say is buy this book. Or borrow it. Or steal it (not from me though, I’ll hunt your ass down). Doesn’t matter. Just get your hands on a copy.

You’ll be glad you did.

VeryBiasedCritic

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