Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Jo Fletcher Books/Broadway Books, 2016
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

“A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions. Now, the city's god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.
So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh -- foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister -- has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten. At least, it makes the perfect cover story.
The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world -- or destroy it. The trouble is that this old soldier isn't sure she's still got what it takes to be the hero.”
I didn’t really have much time to form expectations about this book, because I started it immediately after the first.  I was in an airplane, I had it on my e-reader, and the first book had been really good. There are some vague spoilers below, but I tried to keep from giving away specifics. I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for Hugo considerations in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.
My Thoughts:
City of Blades takes place a few years after City of Stairs, and it tells a standalone story. There are some recurring characters from the first book, but I think you could read them in whatever order you prefer. As in the previous book, I loved the cultural world-building and the atmospheric descriptions of place. The basic set up this time is similar, following a retired general traveling to Voortyashtan with the ulterior motive of investigating a strange disappearance.  Naturally, things are more complicated than they at first appear, and it soon becomes clear that deities might be involved somehow. The focus this time, though, is on the nature of war in general, and the effects of the specific war between Saypur and the continent. This makes for a somewhat darker book, and also one that I felt was more emotional. The brutality of Voortya’s people is still not far from the minds of Saypuri, and it is not surprising that peace there is a brittle thing.  On a more personal level, we see what war has done to the heroine, Turyin Mulaghesh.    
Mulaghesh was introduced originally in City of Stairs, but she didn’t make that much of an impression on me.  In this book, she takes center stage, and she became more compelling to me as I learned more about her.  She starts out as a particular character type, a veteran who isn’t coping well with the trauma of war and who has turned to alcohol for solace. However, she was not simply a soldier in the first war against the continent--she was an un-indicted war criminal.  The guilt that has been killing her since those days is justified. Her acceptance of her own sins also helps to keep her from romanticizing war and violence in the way that others might. I thought she made for an excellent protagonist for this kind of a story.  Fans of the first book might also be happy to hear that Sigrud plays a large supporting role, and that we do get to learn more about him. 
There’s one other thing I feel I should mention, since it happened both in City of Stairs and in City of Blades: a distressing and seemingly gratuitous character death.  There is a major side character in each book who is killed late in the story.  In both cases, this happened to a character I liked, and in both cases I didn’t see why it had to happen that way. This is more an issue of personal preference than a criticism of the book, but I thought it might be helpful to mention for other readers.  For me, it felt like a little unpleasant jab in a story where I would otherwise expect the major characters to save the day and emerge victorious. Aside from this small twinge, I found the story and the world to be as immersive and entertaining as ever.  
My Rating: 5/5
City of Blades, the follow-up to the impressive City of Stairs, tells a standalone story that is perhaps even more entertaining than the first novel.  Where the first novel focused on religion, culture, and history, this second novel focuses on war and its effects. For this purpose, rumored war criminal Mulaghesh is a natural protagonist.  Her personal story was emotional and compelling, and it matched nicely with the mystery she went to Voortyashtan to uncover. I am looking forward to seeing how the trilogy will conclude!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Jo Fletcher Books/Broadway Books, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the Divine Cities
Awards Nominated: Holdstock, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.”
I’d heard a lot of positive things about this series, so I finally decided to check it out.  I don’t think I’d ever read anything by Robert Jackson Bennett before. This review is going to be followed by one for City of Blades, because I read them back-to-back. I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for Hugo considerations in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.
My Thoughts:
Part of the reason I held off on reading this for several years, despite hearing positive things about it, is that it appeared to be an epic fantasy revolving around a murder mystery.  I have a low tolerance for murder mysteries, and my interest in epic fantasy had been flagging. Luckily, this book was unusual in both of these respects. The story does start off with a murder investigation, but the death is more of an inciting incident than the central focus of the story.  The world is also really creative, and has more technology than I would usually expect in the sub-genre. The sense of place for Bulikov is very strong, and I enjoyed the way the unreliable, frightening effects of the divine influenced the story. I also appreciated the complicated cultural tension between Saypur and the continent.  The way the world was described made the book feel very immersive to me, so I was very quick to be drawn into the story.
This is a plot-driven book, rather than character-driven, but several of the characters were quite memorable.  I like reading about teamwork, so I was a big fan of the strong non-romantic relationship between Shara and Sigrud.  They complemented each other well and made for a nearly unstoppable team. There was a little too much of an emphasis on quirks in their characterization for me (e.g. Shara constantly drinks tea and doesn’t eat), but that’s a minor complaint.  It was really easy for me to latch onto Shara’s perspective let myself be swept away by the story. Sometimes coincidences she encountered seemed a little convenient, but I was always eager to see the next new thing. This was a smooth read that felt far shorter than its 400+ pages. I was ready to read the next book of the series immediately!
My Rating: 4.5/5
City of Stairs is a highly entertaining fantasy story that kicks off with a murder mystery and ends up with much more miraculous problems.  I especially liked the world-building and the immersive atmosphere of the setting. The non-romantic partnership of the main characters, Shara and Sigrud, was also a strong draw for me.  They were both memorable characters in their own right, but together they made for a compelling team. There was a lot going on throughout the book, but everything came together in a satisfying way at the end.  I’m certainly going to be reading more work by Bennett, and I’ll be reviewing City of Blades next on my blog!  

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Published: Tor (2017)
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell Memorial and Locus First Novel Awards

The Book:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can't otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack's drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

I picked up this book because of all the award attention, and also because the premise sounded like it would make an interesting story.  This is Annalee Newitz’s first novel.

My Thoughts:

The world of Autonomous is a future capitalist nightmare, extrapolated from current trends.  Corporations have far more power than they do now, so laws have shifted to accommodate what is best for them. For instance, patents are permanent and secret, so that pharmaceutical companies can continue to profit on drugs indefinitely.  The question of robotic AI rights vs. human rights is also settled in a way that prioritizes profits -- if robots can be considered human, then humans can also be considered commodities. It’s a pretty dark future, but not a fully unrecognizable one.  It also doesn’t seem completely hopeless, since we see people like Jack fighting against the status quo, even if she isn’t altogether noble.

I enjoyed what I saw of the world-building, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the characters, even though I often like reading about people with major flaws. Eliasz is a murderous homophobe, and, for all their initial naivete, Paladin seems to become similar.  Jack is the most objectively decent main character, but her black market drugs make her responsible for a lot of suffering. In addition, both Jack and Eliasz separately engage in sexual relationships that seem very exploitative, due to uncomfortable power dynamics. I think that part of my issue might have been that I did not feel like their character flaws were sufficiently acknowledged or addressed within the story. 

Even if they didn’t engage me emotionally, some of the characters were pretty fun to read about.  I enjoyed seeing Jack navigate her counterculture, and I especially liked Paladin’s character arc.  Paladin begins the story as a newborn robot AI, and we get to see them learn about the world and their place in it.  I enjoyed the idea of what a robotic AI perspective might be like, and it was interesting to see how their thoughts were affected by things like code and communication protocols.  There were also differences in the relative importance that humans and robots put on particular topics. For instance, gender is not something the robots care about, and they don’t have any natural instinct to value organic components over mechanical. I think Paladin’s arc is going to be the part of the story that sticks with me the strongest.

My Rating:3.5/5

Overall, Autonomous was an entertaining book, set in a corporate dystopia that I seriously hope we never reach in reality.  Though the world was bleak, it was also interesting, and I enjoyed the exploration of the perspective of a robotic AI.  The characters had some serious flaws, which I usually like, but in this case it made it difficult for me emotionally invest in the story.  Overall, I liked this book, and I would be interested in reading more from Newitz. It looks like her next book, The Future of Another Timeline, is coming out Sept. 24, 2019!