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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 3 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday.  Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army.  Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth.  In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Review:
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t?  So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away.  I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.

I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting.  Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth.  Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again?  Completely. Fascinating.  And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary.  And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well.  The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures.  They feel real.  And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well.  The worldbuilding here is phenomenal.  It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.

The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding.  John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life.  He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page.  He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be.  Other characters feel that way, but not John.  In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself.  I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes.  But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.

*spoiler warning*
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body.  Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife.  Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much.  This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that.  It’s gross. It is not romantic.  And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
*end spoilers*

Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character.  The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes.  However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Book Review: Germline by T. C. McCarthy (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Donald Corren)

August 23, 2012 2 comments

Silhouette of a man standing in a tunnel holding a gun.Summary:
Oscar is a reporter and lands an assignment with Stars and Stripes to go over to Kazakhstan and report on the new war between the US and Russia over resources needed for technology.  This is a new kind of warfare. One fought mostly underground, and with the soldiers permanently wearing suits. Plus they’re fighting side-by-side with Genetics–human-looking robots who are all female and all look alike.  Oscar started out just wanting a Pulitzer in between his drug addiction, which is easily fueled in Kaz. But Kaz changes people.

Review:
It’s been a while since I ventured in military scifi. I usually stick with the more sociological/psych experiment or cyberpunk areas of the genre, but this one just stuck out to me.  I think its combination of aspects is just intriguing–a drug addicted journalist, a future war on earth, underground warfare, and robots.  It certainly held my attention and flamed my interest in military scifi, plus it wound up counting for the MIA Reading Challenge, which was an added bonus.

Oscar is a well-rounded character. At first he seems flat and frankly like a total douchebag, but that’s because he’s a depressed drug addict. We learn gradually what landed him there and how he grows out of it with time.  It’s an interesting character development arc because although many arcs show how war leads to alcoholism or drug addiction, in Oscar’s case although it at first makes his addiction worse, it ultimately helps him beat it.  Because he ultimately snaps and realizes that the drugs are not helping the problems. They’re just making them worse. This is so key for anyone struggling with an addiction to realize. Pain in the present to feel better in the future. And McCarthy does an excellent job showing this progression without getting preachy.  Sometimes you want to throttle Oscar, but you ultimately come to at least respect him if not like him.  I wasn’t expecting such strong characterization in a military scifi, and I really enjoyed it.

The world McCarthy has built is interesting. The war itself is fairly typical–first world countries butting heads over resources in third world countries. But the content of the battles and the fighting methods are futuristic enough to maintain the scifi feel.  There are the Genetics of course, and they are used by both sides. It’s interesting that the Americans use only female Genetics, and that is explained later on.  There are also different vehicles and weapons that are scary but still seem plausible. Of course there’s also the suits the soldiers permanently wear, the front-line tunnels (the “subterrene”).  It all adds up to a plausible future war.

Now, I will say, some of the battle scenes and near misses that Oscar has seem a bit of a stretch. I know odd things happen in war, and anyone can get lucky, but. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.  It seemed sometimes as if McCarthy wrote himself into a corner then had to figure out a way to make his main character survive.  Escaping danger is fine, and necessary for the book to continue. But it should seem like a plausible escape. And if you have one that seems miraculous, it seems a bit excessive to me to have more than one.

The audiobook narrator did a fine job, in my opinion. He didn’t add anything to the story but he also didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  I will note, however, that he pronounced “corpsman” wrong, saying the “s,” which is supposed to be silent.  This only came up a few times and didn’t really bother me, but some readers, particularly ones who have been in the military themselves, might be bothered.  Nothing else was mispronounced, and the voices used fit the characters nicely.

Overall, this piece of futuristic military scifi showcases both war and addiction in an engaging manner.  Some readers may be off-put by Oscar at first, but stick it out. It takes many interesting turns. Recommended to scifi fans, whether they generally like military scifi or not.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Acacia: The War With the Mein by David Anthony Durham (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Acacia tree against a sunset.Summary:
The Akarans have ruled the Known World for twenty-two generations, but the wrongfully exiled Meins have a bit of a problem with that.  They enact a take-over plot whose first action is assassinating the king.  Suddenly his four children are flung to different parts of the Known World in exile where they will need to come to terms with who they are, who the Mein are, and the wrongs past generations of Akarans committed in order to help the Known World make a change for the better.

Review:
I have a big announcement to make. Huge even.  THIS IS THE FIRST HIGH FANTASY BOOK I HAVE LOVED.  There. I said it!  And it’s true.

I wish I had some vague idea of how this ended up on my TBR pile.  The only clue I have is that I acquired it via PaperBackSwap, so I know I got it very intentionally after reading a review or something somewhere.  But where? And why?  Who knows!  It was entirely out of my comfort zone, took me much longer than my norm to read (over two weeks according to GoodReads), and yet. I loved every moment of it.

A momentous occasion such as this obviously leaves me asking why.  Why when I generally am irritated by most high fantasy did this one not just not bug me but worm its way into my heart?  This is a key question, because it’s something that helps stories cross genres.  I do have an answer, but of course it has many elements.

First, although this primarily depicts a war, no side is depicted as pure evil or good.  Both sides have good points and flaws.  Good people work for both.  Bad people work for both.  The Akaran king isn’t a bad guy per se, but he’s allowing things to happen under his rule that are bad.  The Meins have a just cause, but they do horrible things in the process of achieving that cause.  This realistic complexity is something that I have found to be sorely missing in other fantasy.  The Known World is its own fantastical place with its own cultures and history, but it is realistic in the fact that everything is complex and nothing is clear-cut.

Second, the female characters are incredibly well-written.  They are well-rounded, strong and yet vulnerable.  Beautiful and yet terrifying.  They are innately a part of the world depicted, not just princesses in a tall tower or the girl at the side of the field whose beauty inspires the men.  Women are historically a part of the Akaran army, and the two Akaran princesses have strengths and flaws of PEOPLE.  They are not “female flaws.”  They are people who happen to have vaginas.  It is some of the best writing of women I’ve seen from a male writer in a while.

Third, the Known World is complex and eloquently imagined, yet clear and easy to understand.  It is its own thing, but it is similar enough to our own real world that I wasn’t left grasping for straws trying to understand things.  People in cold climates are pale, and people in deserts are dark.  The animals range from recognizable horses and monkeys to fantastical creatures that are a mix of rhinoceroses and pigs.  It is creative yet fathomable.

Finally, the storyline is complex.  I could not predict what was going to happen next at any moment, really.  The ending caught me completely by surprise, and I am baffled as to what Durham will be doing with the middle book of the trilogy.  Baffled and impatient.

My god. I love a fantasy story.

Overall, this is now the book I will hold up when people ask me what is good fantasy.  It is what leaves me with hope for the genre that it can be more than pasty white men wishing for a patriarchal past of quivering ladies in waiting and knights fighting dragons.  Fantasy can imagine a world where some things are better than ours, and yet other things are worse.  It can be a reflection of our own world through a carnival mirror.  Something that makes us think hard while getting lost.  I highly recommend it to anyone looking for those things in their reading.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Ethan: Site 39 by Otis V. Goodwin

January 26, 2010 9 comments

Book cover--purple light hitting a black and white planet.Summary:
In the near future Earth is destroyed by an asteroid.  Luckily for humanity, a group of people had already departed for Alpha Centauri to colonize the two stars found there.  After losing contact with the few survivors, the Centaurians believed Earth to be uninhabited.  Five thousand years later, their descendants return to an Earth that has recovered from the chaos caused by the asteroid to begin the work of reinhabiting it.  When Ethan, one of the colonists, stumbles upon a residence dug into a mesa made of granite, everything the Centaurians believe about what occurred on Earth in relation to the asteroid is challenged.

Review:
I really wanted this to be a good book.  First I’m a big supporter of indie and self-publishing, as I often find the stories more creative and thought-provoking than those published by big publishing houses.  (See my review of Vow of Silence for evidence of that).  I also thought it was an intriguing scifi storyline.  Unfortunately, Goodwin can’t write.

Oh, he can come up with a great idea for a story, but his writing is terrible.  First, he tells us instead of showing us.  For instance, he’ll say things like “Ethan was thinking how worried he was,” instead of, you know, letting us see Ethan’s worried thoughts.  Whole parts of the story that would have been fun to read in addition to making the book longer he sums up by telling us about it in a couple of sentences, such as “They talked about their planned future together” instead of letting us read the conversation.

Not that I would have wanted to read the conversation anyway, because the dialogue is atrocious.  Every character sounds like an automaton.  They never use a contraction or a simile or anything really that makes a human sound human.  Goodwin tries to explain this as language changing, but even when we flash back to see characters from the time of the asteroid, they speak in exactly the same robotic manner.

The book blurb says that Goodwin is retired from the military, and it frankly shows.  In some ways, this is good.  The military portions in the asteroid flashback are clearly written by someone who knows the military.  However, mostly it’s just a rabid conservatism showing.  We’re talking a world in which the small population of humans rebuilding all automatically fall in love with someone of the opposite gender and that love is automatically, wholeheartedly returned.  It’s like the man never got past the fairy tales told to little girls to realize that that doesn’t happen perfectly for everybody in real life.  Real life just doesn’t work out that perfectly for everyone.  It makes all of the characters unbelievable, whereas having one true love situation would be believable.

Of course, there is no saving the wretched female characters.  Goodwin seems to be only capable of writing the completely helpless sobbing woman or a woman who is essentially a dude with boobs.  God forbid a woman be strong and feminine simultaneously.

I feel kind of bad saying all of this, because his overall storyline really is good and creative.  It’s what kept me reading the book in spite of cringing and rolling my eyes.  What Goodwin should have done is acquired a writing partner who could write his storyline on the sentence level well.  Then he would have had a great book.  Unfortunately, he didn’t do that.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Free copy from book promotion agent via LibraryThing‘s EarlyReviewers Member Giveaway program.

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