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Book Review: Mark of the Harbinger: Fall of Eden by Chris R. McCarthy

August 11, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Mark of the Harbinger: Fall of Eden by Chris R. McCarthySummary:
Humanity, desperate to save themselves from oncoming meteors that will destroy Earth, builds two spaceships and binds them together into one unit.  They fill it with the best and brightest of humanity then send it off into space, with nanobots working to keep them all perpetually the same age they were when entering the ship, hoping that they will find another habitable planet.  But over the thousands of years of searching, the two ships have slowly evolved into one of beauty, order, and plenty of food.  The other has become a prison ship, full of starvation and degradation.  Both ruled by an artificial intelligence known as Ark.  When a man awakes on the prison ship, he must discover who he is and why he has been awakened.

Review:
The basic idea of a ship full of thousands of people wandering outer space for thousands of years and how that impacts their culture is a good one.  But it is unfortunately supported by weak characterization, quite a bit of telling instead of showing (often in the form a conversational infodump), questionable science, and aggravating plot twists.

I am not a scifi reader who expects everything to be Asimov or heavy on the science.  I enjoy the broad range that scifi has to offer.  But I do expect a scifi that takes itself seriously, as this one does, to have: a plot that makes sense, at least two characters who are well-rounded and richly presented, and any science within it to be accurate or at least plausible.  This scifi definitely takes itself seriously, but it fails on these marks.

The book opens with a first person narration of the nameless hero (later named Harbinger) believing he is being dissected by an alien race.  It takes quite a bit of time to find out that he was cryogenically frozen on this ship, and the rebels of the prison ship have woken him up.  If this wasn’t a review copy, I probably would have given up before Harbinger figures this out, because the reader has zero reason to care about this character who is being dissected, apparently.  It’s quite jarring to open up the book that way, and it’s hard to read with no investment in any of the characters at all.  It’s a rough beginning.

Harbinger has amnesia, so he can’t help the rebels figure out why exactly he was on the ship.  But they do discover that he has superhuman powers, just as the rebels were hoping, so they want him to help them fight for access back to Echelon–the ship that is not a prison  (There are names for both ships, but I honestly can’t remember what the name of the prison ship was.)  The rebel character who works closest with Harbinger is a woman named Leema.  Harbinger gets slightly more characterization than Leema, because we are inside his head.  But both come across as flat. Their actions appear to exist entirely as plot devices and not out of real, rich motivation.  For instance, Leema seems mostly to exist to give Harbinger information, to have sex with, then to spur him to make certain decision.  She doesn’t come across as a person so much as a plot device.  The same can be said for the leader of the rebels, Argus, an older man who calls people “son.”  He simply does not feel real.  He feels like a plot device who pops in whenever it’s necessary to make something happen to Harbinger.

The writing often relies on conversational infodump, which is a shame, because when there are action sequences, they are interesting and exciting.  The periodic action sequences are what kept me reading.  They are well-written, particularly the fight scenes.  But when the characters talk, the conversation doesn’t feel real.  It feels like the author is speaking directly to the reader through the characters, often to provide background information.  This is known as an infodump, and it’s frustrating to read.  It would be better to work this information into the plot, rather than have characters sit in a room and say it at each other for chapters at a time.

The science is a bit shaky.  For instance, the spaceship is decorated with marble.  Real marble.  Real marble is incredibly heavy, and there’s a weight limit that spaceships can handle.  It’s hard to imagine a people desperate to save humanity from meteors wasting precious weight space on marble decorations.  Similarly, Harbinger is never fully explained.  He appears to be human and bleeds but can’t feel pain, has superhuman strength, can only be killed by cutting off his head.  Is he a robot? Or a genetically modified humanoid? Maybe a clone?  Leema explains “his kind” being created but she seems to know very little about it, which makes it odd that she and the rebels knew enough to know how to break him free from Ark by cutting into him and adjusting things inside his body.  The core of the idea is good but it’s just not explained enough. That is really what makes some of the science in the book weak.  It’s not gone into in enough depth to make enough sense.

Finally, the plot makes quite a few quick zany twists, most of which I was willing to give a pass.  The final twist, however, made me want to throw my kindle against the wall.  (I didn’t, because I like my kindle).  I’m sure the final plot twist was intended to make the reader want to continue on to the next book in the series, but it actually just left me feeling deeply unsatisfied and frustrated.  If I had to put my finger on what made it so frustrating, I’d say that it felt forced, not organic.

Overall, this book consists of a good basic idea that suffers from infodumping, weak characters, and being forced to stick to a plot that doesn’t feel organic.  Rich characters who drove an organic plot free of infodumps could have made this into an interesting world and cultural exploration.  Instead, it’s a frustrating read.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Zelde M’Tana by F. M. Busby (Series, Prequel) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

April 23, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Zelde M'Tana (Series, Prequel)Summary:
Zelde M’Tana is one of the lost children, living away from UET influence and welfare or adults at all in gangs of violent kids.  But she gets captured and sent in outerspace on a journey toward being a sex slave on a mining planet.  When the ship mutinies, her chances for a future change for the better.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard it is the prequel for a black woman spaceship captain from a scifi series in the 70s.  I was intrigued (who wouldn’t be by that cover) but I was ultimately disappointed by the characterization of Zelde.

This prequel is designed to be able to be read as a standalone, so that’s how I approached it.  It’s not entirely clear what the problem is in this futuristic world, but it appears that an evil corporation known as the UET has taken over governing everybody and generally encourages violence and treats everyone like dirt.  There are a few escaped ships and some colonies they have set up on other planets where people live freely.  This prequel, then, basically tracks how Zelde comes to be escaped.

I almost stopped reading the book very early on during Zelde’s lost child years.  She is a lost child who joins a gang and winds up climbing the ranks.  There’s obviously a lot of violence.  What I wasn’t expecting was for Zelde to be a rapist.  In the context of the gang wars, when her gang overtakes another, she takes the leader of that gang and rapes him in front of everyone.  (She achieves this by tying a rope around his penis and tugging on it until he gets hard).  In one instance, perhaps in both, I’ve kind of tried to scrub it from my mind, she kills the man right after raping him.  Now, the thing to understand is, Zelde is not ever presented as an anti-hero.  She is 100% supposed to be a hero that the reader roots for.  We want her to escape UET; we want her to succeed.  But she’s a rapist.  A hero rapist isn’t a character I can get behind, and I wouldn’t want other readers to either.

I kept reading the book because I was wondering if this would ever be addressed.  If, perhaps after Zelde escapes and is able to get some education and safety she would realize what she did was wrong.  But that never happens anywhere in the book.  It’s really disappointing.

The second problem I have with the book, which is somewhat related, is in how it presents female sexuality.  Basically, in this world, all women will have sex with other women if a man happens to not be around and convenient right when they get their urge.  So, for instance, Zelde prefers men, but she’ll take a woman to pair up with if a man isn’t right handy.  She also will dump her female pairing the instant there’s a hint she can get with a man.  Similarly, there’s a triad relationship on the ship in which a man, Dopples, is paired with two blonde women.  The women read as sisters, although it’s possible they’re not.  In any case, this is one of our typical interactions with them:

She [Zelde] could never tell the two blonde women apart. The one who opened the door this time had bangs now–but so did the other, standing behind a little. Both naked, hair messed, a little sweaty and out of breath–were they having somebody else in here? no–not on Dopples; they wouldn’t dare that. Must be playing together, just by themselves. That figured–for two women, one man had to be short rations. (page 127)

It all feels like a misreading of female bisexuality.  Female bisexuality isn’t a result of an appetite for sex that is just so high it can’t be satiated by just one person or that must be satiated at every opportunity.  Bisexuality is not this idea that women need to have sex constantly and so will take just anyone, with a slight preference toward men.  While I appreciate that a book published in 1980 includes the idea that women can be attracted to other women it reads from the perspective of a male gaze idea of female bisexuality instead of the reality.  Similarly, not all women are bisexual and yet every single woman in this book seems willing to jump into bed with another woman if a man doesn’t happen to be available or in the context of a M/F/F threesome.  Not all women are bisexual.  Not all bisexual women prefer to pair up with men (some do, but not all).  Not all bisexual women are open to the idea of a threesome.  The only hint to the idea that not all women are bisexual that the book concedes to is that one character is asked at one point if she is “all for women” (page 257) as in are you a lesbian.  (She is not, if you were wondering).  It is just as erasing of bisexuality to operate from the assumption that all women are bisexual (but not all men) as it is to say none are.  Some straight men may like the idea that women are off sleeping with each other every time their backs are turned and that of course any woman would want to participate in a M/F/F threesome given the opportunity, but that is not the reality.

One final issue I had with the book, which is a bit minor but is still annoying, is a bit of grammar.  Almost every time a character says something like “would’ve” or “could’ve,” it’s spelled as “would of” or “could of.”  It does this outside of times the characters speak, so it’s not an attempt at dialect.

A positive to say about the book is the plot is fast-moving and covers a lot of ground.  Zelde’s life is eventful, and if a reader isn’t a fan of one phase, it will quickly change.  Also, Zelde’s race is not just mentioned and then forgotten.  Her existence as a black woman and what that means for her is confronted in the book in various ways.  Also, Zelde rocks a natural hairstyle and gauges her ears at one point while still climbing the ranks of the ship.

Overall, this 1980 scifi book contains a fast plot and interesting future but its representation of female sexuality may be bothersome to some readers.  Readers who seek to avoid scenes involving rape or being asked to identify with a rapist should avoid it.  Recommended to readers of classic scifi and those interested in seeing representations of black women in literature in the 1970s and 1980s.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: The now-defunct SwapTree (like PaperBackSwap).

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge