Monday, July 22, 2019

Review: Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: Solaris (2017)
Series: Book 2 of the Machineries of Empire
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

“Captain Kel Cheris is possessed by a long-dead traitor general. Together they must face the rivalries of the hexarchate and a potentially devastating invasion. When the hexarchate's gifted young captain Kel Cheris summoned the ghost of the long-dead General Shuos Jedao to help her put down a rebellion, she didn't reckon on his breaking free of centuries of imprisonment--and possessing her.

Even worse, the enemy Hafn are invading, and Jedao takes over General Kel Khiruev's fleet, which was tasked with stopping them. Only one of Khiruev's subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, seems to be able to resist the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao. Jedao claims to be interested in defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev or Brezan trust him? For that matter, will the hexarchate's masters wipe out the entire fleet to destroy the rogue general?”

I started reading this series due to it being a Hugo finalist, but I’ve continued reading them because they’re just so interestingly weird.  I’ve reviewed the first book here. The final novel in the trilogy, Revenant Gun,  is currently up for the Hugo again, so we’ll see how the series fares this year!

My Thoughts:

Raven Stratagem picks up not too long after the conclusion of Ninefox Gambit, and the reader needs to remember the details of the previous novel.  I’d recommend reading this series in order, and preferably not with long gaps in between. Sadly, I did not take this advice. I spent the first part of the book reminding myself of the universe, and also wondering if I had totally misread part of the ending of Ninefox Gambit.  It turns out that I didn’t, and everything does make sense in the end. It was just that several characters keep their cards very close to the chest, and sometimes secrets the reader doesn’t know can seem like narrative discontinuity or inconsistent characterization. After the reveals throughout Raven Stratagem, my faith in Lee’s storytelling has been strengthened for the final novel of the trilogy.

Raven Stratagem has more focus on the characters than the first novel, but I would still say that characterization is not its strong point.  We don’t have the perspective of Cheris/Jedao this time, so there isn’t much development there. Of the other characters, I most enjoyed reading about General Kel Khiruev, a woman who is put in an incredibly difficult position.  Formation instinct requires her to obey Jedao, but she also has personal moral principles that she wants to follow. The soldier who is immune to formation instinct, Brezan, has a different problem--he is free to oppose Jedao, but he can only do so alone.  Of all the characters, I was least interested in reading about the political machinations of the faction leaders. Even Mikodez, our perspective character, is kind of flat and inhuman. I’m wondering if this is intentional, as a way to represent how the Hexarchate crushes the humanity out of those who manage to rise up in its ranks.

I was most impressed by the world-building in Ninefox Gambit, and that continues to be a strong point in Raven Stratagem.  The broad strokes of the Hexarchate were laid out in the first book, and in this one we start to fill in more details.  I had a hard time keeping all the factions straight in the first book, but here we get to see more interaction with the members of each.  Exploring the Kel faction formation instinct, which enforces the soldier’s obedience to authority, is also a major focus of the novel. I feel like I also got a clearer picture this time of the sheer horror of the Hexarchate.  Their government is incredibly dehumanizing and oppressive, and it is only becoming more so as time goes on. It is very easy to sympathize with a heretic’s desire to destroy it. Like Ninefox Gambit, this novel does tell a complete story, but it is still clearly part of a larger arc that I expect to conclude with Revenant Gun.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Raven Stratagem is the second book of the creatively weird Machineries of Empire series, where adherence to calendar systems define the society and available technology. I enjoyed getting more details about the Hexarchate and its people, and I liked that there was a little more focus on characterization than in the first novel. On the other hand, there was also a plotline focusing on politics between villainish aristocrats, which didn’t really catch my interest.  Overall, I did enjoy the novel, and I’ll definitely be reading the conclusion of the series, Revenant Gun!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Review: Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
Published: DAW Books (2016)
Series: Book 1 of the Heroine Complex Trilogy

The Book:

“Being a superheroine is hard. Working for one is even harder. Evie Tanaka is the put-upon personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, her childhood best friend and San Francisco's most beloved superheroine. She's great at her job--blending into the background, handling her boss's epic diva tantrums, and getting demon blood out of leather pants.Unfortunately, she's not nearly as together when it comes to running her own life, standing up for herself, or raising her tempestuous teenage sister, Bea.

But everything changes when Evie's forced to pose as her glamorous boss for one night, and her darkest secret comes out: she has powers, too. Now it's up to her to contend with murderous cupcakes, nosy gossip bloggers, and supernatural karaoke battles--all while juggling unexpected romance and Aveda's increasingly outrageous demands. And when a larger threat emerges, Evie must finally take charge and become a superheroine in her own right... or see her city fall to a full-on demonic invasion.”

I read this one because the author was nominated for the JWC Best New Author award.  It’s not exactly like the sort of books I usually gravitate toward, but I enjoy branching out sometimes! I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for consideration for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.

My Thoughts:

Heroine Complex is a quirky, cartoonish superheroine story, which makes it a good read when you’re up for something light and fun.  The story follows two Asian American women, Evie Tanaka and Annie Chang (a.k.a. Aveda Jupiter), who live in a San Francisco where opening demonic portals have granted some people supernatural powers.  The story is fast-paced and easy to read, and Evie’s narration is pleasant and often funny. The style feels a little like a comic book, in the sense that everything is over-the-top. Descriptions tend to be kind of kitschy, and each character is an extreme version of their particular type. This makes the world feel very colorful and energetic, though it also adds some silliness into high stakes situations. 

While I enjoyed reading the story, I sometimes had difficulty believing in the relationships between the characters.  For instance, Aveda Jupiter and Evie are childhood friends, but I initially didn’t pick up on a friendship between them at all. Another key relationship in the story, Evie’s romance subplot, seems to happen really quickly.  A lot of the emotional development for both relationships take place in passionate, confessional conversations. Occasionally, I would have liked to see a little more change through actions rather than dialogue. Despite this, I still enjoyed seeing this story through Evie’s eyes, and I’m happy with how the conclusion ties up the various character arcs, as well as the main plot with the threat to San Francisco.  The story continues in Heroine Worship and Heroine’s Journey, the second and third books of the trilogy. 

My Rating: 3/5

Heroine Complex is a light, fun Asian American superheroine story, set in a San Francisco threatened by demons traveling through unpredictable portals.  The conversational and quirkily humorous narration by Evie Tanaka makes the story smoothly readable, and through her description the world feels vibrant and comic-book-like.  On the other hand, I felt like the character development relied a bit too much on emotional conversations as turning points, and I sometimes didn’t really buy the relationships.  In any case, it was an entertaining book, and I would recommend it to others looking for stories in this vein. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: Endymion by Dan Simmons

Endymion by Dan Simmons
Published: Bantam Spectra, 1996
Series: Book 3 of the Hyperion Cantos
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

The Book:

“Humanity once ruled an interstellar empire, held together by farcaster portals that allowed people to step directly over vast distances. When it was discovered that AIs were hijacking human brains while in transit, the portal system was destroyed, leaving each planet to its own devices. Nearly 300 years later, the Catholic Church offered something new to bridge the vast distances -- immortality through symbiosis with cruciform-shaped alien parasites. Billions of people were eager to accept the new sacraments of the Church. Raul Endymion was not one of them.

Raul was a young former soldier who found himself entrusted with the protection of a special child, Aenea, who traveled from the future to once again change human society forever.  Together with an android and a personal spaceship, they fled from the relentless agents of the Church. Their path was down the river Tethys, which once flowed across many different worlds, and did so again with Aenea’s influence.” ~Allie

This is the third book of the Hyperion series, and I listened to it via audio while commuting to and from work.      

My Thoughts:

Endymion seems to be a straightforward adventure story, which makes it a little different from the previous books in the series.  It primarily follows Aenea, Raul, and A. Bettik floating down a river through wildly different worlds, encountering exciting and dangerous obstacles. The other half of the story involves the pursuing warrior-priest, Federico de Soya, a man of true faith who is troubled by his increasing awareness of the ruthlessness of his organization. I think the structure of the story was especially appealing to me, since the broad strokes are so similar to pretend games I played as a child.  I loved seeing the environments and lifeforms of each world, as well as seeing how the isolated human populations had adapted to live. I feel like I got to see so much more of this universe than I had from the previous novels.

I also really enjoyed reading about these particular characters. Raul is a kind and resourceful guy, and a pretty good narrator. I don’t really understand the obsession science fiction and fantasy seem to have with magical children, but I thought Aenea felt pretty genuine as a person and not just a plot device. It’s strongly hinted that Raul and Aenea will be romantically involved at some point in the future, but for this book their relationship is entirely platonic (I’ll talk more about this issue in my review of the final book). I was not terribly interested in the inner workings of the fictional future Catholic Church, but Father de Soya was a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist. I appreciated that even though a corrupt church is the villain in this story, we also see people who are true believers and who take the moral doctrine of their faith seriously.  

My Rating: 5/5

The third book of the Hyperion Cantos picks up the story several centuries later, with an almost entirely new cast of characters. Endymion is an exciting chase story, with our heroes (Raul, Aenea and A.Bettik) fleeing across many interesting worlds while the Catholic Church continues its pursuit.  It was really fun to explore more of this universe, and to see what happened to the people after the destruction of the farcasters. The main plot is resolved within the novel, but it is also clearly the first half of a larger story. I was pretty eager to jump right into the finale, and it also does not disappoint.  I can see why this series is considered a classic of science fiction.