Father Sandoz, the only person from the humanity’s first mission to Rakhat to return to Earth, has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Jesuits asks him to assist in preparing the second team. Reticent to assist anyone to go to Rakhat but enjoying the use of the languages again, he agrees.
Meanwhile, one survivor of the mission joins forces with the Runa and a rogue Jana’ata to bring about justice. What world will the second mission find when they return? It certainly won’t be the one previously held in a tenuous working balance between predator and prey.
The Sparrow really touched me, and I was eager to return to Rakhat, not to mention to see how Sandoz handled his recovery. What I found was a mixed bag. A creative expansion on the world of Rakhat but a message and character development that moved in directions that left me feeling very little.
The presence of humans upset the delicate balance between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The humans demonstrated to the Runa that they didn’t need the Jana’ata, and thus a revolution was born. The thing is though this culture is just so truly alien that it’s hard to root for the Runa or the Jana’ata.
The Jana’ata have a depraved world, yes, but they are also truly predators who evolved from predators. It’s hard to hate on them when they’re basically cats walking around in medieval clothes. Well, of course they’re acting barbaric. They’re cats! And the thing is, they’re not just cruel to the Runa, they’re cruel to each other as well.
The one real disjointed bit of the narrative is that this culture reads as a developing one, as if they are from the 1200s or 1300s on Earth. Yet they somehow have enough technology that they could broadcast music to Earth? It makes no sense that they would be so backwards and yet simultaneously so advanced in science.
Similarly, the Runa are a people with a culture but they also are a prey species. They reproduce like mad when they have enough food, and they act like herd animals. Yakking constantly and with no real art or science developing. It is easy to see how these two cultures came to co-exist, as well as the fact that they need each other. Put another way, everyone thinks deer are cute, and they are. But if they exist in a world with no natural predators, they soon over-run the place until they have too much population for the land to support, and they start to starve. Yes, the co-existence between the Jana’ata and the Runa could be handled better (certainly with more clarity and more maturity) but the Runa and Jana’ata need each other. They co-evolved.My perspective on the Runa and Jana’ata impacts how I feel about the rest of the book.
Russell presents the idea that it’s ok for the Runa to become the dominant culture so long as they “allow” the “good” Jana’ata (the ones who have sworn off eating Runa and struggle along eating the eggs of some other creature that can barely sustain them. Truly barely. One character has multiple problem pregnancies due to malnutrition). Positing the idea that the Jana’ata are bad because they are predators, and the Runa are good because they are herbivores (with some outliers in both groups of course) is just hard to swallow. Bad and good is much more nuanced than that. Is a shark bad because it eats a seal because it’s hungry? No. But if a shark kills a seal because it’s fun to kill a seal and then swims off without eating it? Then one could argue that’s a bad shark with a bad nature. This level of nuance is just something I felt was missing from the book and the world.
I also found Sandoz’s path back to god to be a bit irritating, as well as the repeatedly presented idea that we can all have different interpretations of the one god, but there is definitely one. A whole alien planet with two sentient species, and no one can even entertain the idea that there might be more than one god? People are allowed to think there’s not one at all, although the book does present this as a shortcoming of those people’s natures. Basically, if they were a bit more willing to open they could at least be agnostic about the idea. The ultimate “proof” of the existence of god in the book is something that made me laugh. I won’t reveal what is found but suffice to say that if you’ve heard the argument about a watch proving there’s a watchmaker, it’s very similar to that one. After the insight and the gray areas allowed in the first book with regards to faith, I was disappointed.
If my review seems a bit mixed and all over the place that’s because that’s how this book read to me. There were chapters of beauty and then others that made me sigh and still others that made me scratch my head. It’s a mixed bag of content set in a complicated world with an ending that some readers would definitely find satisfying but I do not. I still enjoyed the read overall simply because I love visiting the world of Rakhat. But would I want to visit it again? Given the direction it was going, probably not. Although I would gladly visit the future Earth that gets to meet a Jana’ata or a Runa on our own turf.
Overall, readers of the first book who enjoyed it for Rakhat will enjoy getting to know more about both the Runa and the Jana’ata culture will enjoy the sequel, whereas those who appreciated it for its nuance and exploration of gray areas and difficult topics will be less satisfied.
4 out of 5 stars
Illness(es) featured: Autism Spectrum Disorder
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets. The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth. The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first. The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there. When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas. What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up. I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon. Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.
The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be. Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot. Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets. Colonizing the other planets is just that bad. So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists. The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away. This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.
I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book. Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives. One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide. But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D. The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around. Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.
Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z. Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality. The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it. The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.
It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that. People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him). However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening. The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.
All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen. I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head. Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy. They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks. For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read. Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t. For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.
Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability. Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us? A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies. It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.
4 out of 5 stars
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government. Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.” He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion. And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.
I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds. So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it. While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.
The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa). He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do. While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me. The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought. It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me. I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones. I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it. It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you. I appreciate that. But for me personally this plot point just does not work. Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to. I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm. I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper. If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall. The arm got mad. The arm got out of control. There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.
I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist. His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together. I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function. Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors. While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really? The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.
On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read. They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.
The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard. He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper. I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point. It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative. Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy. Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people. Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?
All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest. I’ve barely touched on a couple of them. The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it. I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such. Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go. I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.
Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one. The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense. Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists. The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.
3 out of 5 stars
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling. This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter. She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it. It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both. Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers. I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.
This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail. That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves. The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story. The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does. For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period. This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.
The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him. He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster. Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling. This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.
In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much. I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing. Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version. It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.
I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives. Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured. The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.
Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book. Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular. Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.
4 out of 5 stars
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion. Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good. He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring. The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much. (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy. It is awesome). This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.
Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first. Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way. It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders. I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew. I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t. This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.
Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot. I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship. Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other. Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do. Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize. It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.
All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook. I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect. The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed. I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things. It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.
The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating. This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series. I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.
Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series. Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere. But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.
3 out of 5 stars
In an alternate history, the personal fax machine, not computers, became the quintessential technology, and one company, BelisCo, is running much of the United States. San Jose is now run entirely by BelisCo, and it boasts all the best of modern planned living: adult-only zones, smoking and non-smoking zones, clean and reliable transportation, and legal weed. Marcus Metiline is a PI in San Jose, and his whole world gets turned upside down when he agrees to take a job for BelisCo itself.
This is one of my accepted ARCs for 2015, and I went for it due to its interesting slight twist on the noir genre. I was intrigued at the idea of a PI in an alternate world where fax machines were the status quo instead of PCs. It felt almost like a steampunk. Techpunk? There should be a world for this when the old tech isn’t steam-power. In any case, although I found the world very interesting and I enjoyed visiting it, the plot left me dissatisfied.
This book is an enjoyable read even when the plot is doing weird things. The sentences flow smoothly, and the settings and characters are clearly rendered. I really enjoyed this alternate world. I liked it so much that I was disappointed by how little time we spend in it. Marcus is quickly scooped out and plopped into another world, and I didn’t like that one nearly as much or find it as interesting. The first world Marcus inhabits is creative and new. The other worlds are more dull and are things I’ve seen before.
It’s difficult to review this book without giving much away, but suffice to say that there is physics in the book, and while I appreciate the fact that science of it is good and well-explained, it also is a physics I’ve seen in scifi many times before, and I don’t think this particular rendering brought anything fresh to the table.
There are three really important characters in the book: Marcus, the owner of BelisCo, and a doctor. All three of them are male. This makes the book read a bit like a boys’ club, and it bugged me. The book would have instantly been more unique and interesting if, say, Marcus had been a hard-boiled woman PI. When every main character is basically the same (an intelligent white male), it’s just dull.
So, the non-spoiler reason of why I wasn’t into the plot is that I felt it took things just one twist too far, rendering things a bit ridiculous. If you want more explanation, see the spoiler-filled paragraph below.
Basically, Marcus finds out that San Jose is some sort of Matrix-like simulation aka not the real world, and he is encouraged to break out of it. When he does, the buildings of San Jose start falling apart and people are mad at him. We discover that the reason for this is that the simulation was being done on a bunch of cancer patients. The science here didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but basically they would live longer if they were in the simulation, giving them more of a chance to beat the cancer. Everyone entered the simulation through Marcus, and they had to keep him believing it to keep the experiment going. This whole experiment is highly illegal, and they blow up the building to get rid of the evidence. There are then hints that there are more worlds and simulations than these. First, I found the whole we’re in a simulation and this isn’t real life thing to be a very been there done that plot. It took us out of the much more interesting simulation world and into a computer simulation that I’ve seen before. The second twist of it actually being cancer treatment and them needing Marcus to stay in the world just sent the whole thing off into left field for me. Particularly since I found the science of the cancer treatment to be weak compared to the physics earlier. While I appreciate to others it may read more like a cool idea, to me it just took things on a path from super interesting to I’ve seen this before to wtf was that. It just really didn’t work for me.
Overall, readers who are intrigued by the world in the summary and who don’t mind multiple plot twists and a predominantly male cast will enjoy this read. It is well-written and interesting, but readers expecting to linger in the fax machine world of the plot summary should know that this world is soon left behind.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy in exchange for my honest review