BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie VaughnTitle: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Series: Bannerless Saga #1
Published by Mariner Books
Published: July 11th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

What happens when you mix a post-apocalyptic dystopian with a bit of detective fiction? You’ll get Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless. I really enjoy traditional, structural genre stories mixed with a fantastic setting, and this one didn’t disappoint. Bannerless takes place about a hundred years after a series of events destroy society. It’s a little like taking a peek into our future if we aren’t careful about our relationships with other countries and if we aren’t careful with our planet. Instead of being another post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, Vaughn uses this vision of the future as a twist in her traditional mystery and that twist adds a dimension to the story that I found really enjoyable.

In this futuristic world, the population has dwindled, birth control is mandatory, and people live in tight-knit communities in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. People group together in family units called houses, and they work together to provide enough materials for themselves and for their families, and once their quotas are met or consistently exceeded, these families can apply to get a banner which allows that household to have a baby.

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, a role that combines the roles of police, detective, and judge. Crime doesn’t really exist in this future world, and most of it ends up being bannerless pregnancies or unauthorized food and material production to try to game the system. She is called up with her partner to investigate a suspicious death of a bannerless person in a neighboring community, and she is forced to confront someone with her past as she and her partner Tomas figure out the mystery. I also really enjoyed Enid’s self-discovery as she investigates the suspicious death. She goes from being a little insecure of herself as an individual to growing more and more confident in herself, and to me, that’s entirely relatable. Told in alternating chapters of Enid’s past and present, Bannerless explores a future in which our very society is regulated on the local level and how our actions, even with good intentions, can be devastating for entire families.

If you enjoy traditional mysteries, dystopian futures as imagined in books like Station Eleven, and speculative fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one! It’s short, yet well-crafted and well-paced. And I’ve just read she’s working on another post-apocalyptic murder mystery, so I’m hoping that the next one will continue following Enid’s investigations!

This book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and Mariner Books. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

BOOK REVIEW: Stars are Legion, by Kameron HurleyTitle: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
Published by Saga Press
Published: February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 When you understand what the world is, you have two choices: Become a part of that world and perpetuate that system forever and ever, unto the next generation. Or fight it, and break it, and build something new. The former is safer, and easier. The latter is scarier, because who is to say what you build will be any better?

I read this book in March, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or recommending it since. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion is on its way to becoming (if it’s not already there) one of those must-read science fiction books if you’re into even the barest sliver of science fiction. Science fiction often explores that question of “what if” and reflects on current aspects of life that are problematic in some way. Today, women’s bodies are policed. They are often told they cannot choose for themselves when and how to reproduce, and if a woman is control of her sexuality, she is seen as a threat. I sell this as a “politically charged womb-punk space opera that will thrill you and make you rage, oh, and there are no male characters in this at all.” Most of the time, I get a look like “… what?” My roommate even thinks that me liking this book so much is weird, but this book, at least for me, speaks of certain aspects of an experience that is difficult to convey to someone who doesn’t have a body part that has been consistently policed by men in positions of power.

Aside from this being an amazing space opera, The Stars are Legion has a cast of brutally unlikable characters, blood and gore up the wazoo, and feels like it could have come right out of that wave of sff that was written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The characters are unlikable and cruel and you can’t trust anyone, but you’ll be rooting for them in the end. The Stars are Legion is a an angry, visceral yell into the void of space, and the world within the covers is just an expanse waiting for you to live in it for a while, get pumped up, and want to go kick some ass in the real world.

I mean, don’t you want to read about asexual ships that give birth to whatever the ship needs, cannibalistic women who eat their deformed young, and womb/uterus/placenta references (with all of the associated fluids) all over the place? Yes, you do. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot or the characters because half of the enjoyment of this is getting to discover that for yourself. Just read it. ASAP. The hardcover is out now, the ebook is h*ckin cheap, and the paperback is out in November.

BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay Faye

BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Mysterious Press
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 In the broad light of day, I could not give his tale nearly so much credence as I had granted it when sitting rapt before a midnight fireplace whilst the tempest without erased the natural world.

One of the things I love about Lyndsay Faye’s books are that they evoke the atmosphere of the period of which she writes. Especially her Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Somehow she manages to capture Doyle’s style with a sense of freshness that especially makes The Whole Art of Detection really feel like lost Holmes mysteries. After reading Dust and Shadow and Jane Steele, I wanted to read more of her works and jumped at purchasing The Whole Art of Detection not long after it was released. I read a story or two here and there for the next couple of months because I wanted to savor it, and I’m glad I did. If you enjoyed the original stories, this collection of stories feels like a more intimate peek into the lives of Holmes and Watson. Where the originals seemed to gloss over the “domestic stuff and conversations,” this collection doesn’t shy from it.

A few of the stories that stood out to me were the these: “Memoranda Upon the Gaskell Blackmailing Dilemma” takes place during The Hound of the Baskervilles and is Sherlock Holmes’s perspective while he takes leave from the Watsons during that story. It’s so much fun to read a story from another character’s perspective, and even more so to have that perspective be the elusive Holmes himself.  “An Empty House” is heartbreaking and bridges the gap between the Reichenbach Fall and Holmes’s return. “The Adventure of the Memento Mori” is creepy, thrilling, and shows us readers once again that Holmes has a heart underneath that cold, calculating exterior he tries to project. “The Adventure of the Lightless Maiden” captures Doyle’s obsession with the supernatural, and I thought it was just really well done overall.

All of these stories feel at once rooted in time and timeless, and Faye manages this with her effortless, captivating writing. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes in any capacity and love a good historical mystery, read this right away.

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemists of Loom, by Elise Kova

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemists of Loom, by Elise KovaTitle: The Alchemists of Loom by Elise Kova
Series: Loom Saga #1
Published by Keymaster Press
Published: January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 395
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

 Don’t let the shadows of the past smother the possibility for a bright future.

Elise Kova’s The Alchemists of Loom follows Ari after the five guilds fall to the Dragon King. She meets Cvareh, who is wounded, and she thinks she can kill him off as some kind of revenge, but she decides not to when she learns he can grant her the boon she wants if she takes him to the Alchemists of Loom.

Premise of this is amazing and right up my alley, but something about it fell short for me. Most of it has to do with the fact that we’re thrown in media res without much explanation or world building. We’re just supposed to piece it together with the help of a glossary in the back (which one might not know about if one’s reading a digital copy) or through hints made throughout the story. I don’t mind it if a world is built as sort of an unfolding, but this was like opening up a single folded sheet of paper. You open it and it’s all there like glitter and you’re supposed to keep it all together while trying not to let it spill everywhere. It took me to get about halfway through the book until I felt familiar enough with the world and the characters and the rest of the details to start enjoying the book. I kept reading only because I wanted to know what Cvareh would do.

This book falls under the steampunk fantasy variety and features an indistinct world in which everything happens. There are five guilds with distinct practices, a Dragon king (and I was a little bit disappointed to discover they weren’t actually dragons), shady characters, some light romance that felt entirely forced (oh yes the main girl and the main guy argue all the time and clash all the time so of course they’ll automatically like each other).

Ari reminded me a lot of Celaena in Maas’s Throne of Glass series before she became Aelin, and Ari in this novel is a well-known criminal with an intent to restore Loom to its former glory before the Dragons took over. Her motive is unclear though, and I don’t really find a connection or sympathy to a character who has a mission. She is unyielding to that mission, but she has no clear motive for what she does, just that things must be made right. Okay? But why? Her sidekick/lover/girlfriend/??? Florence is more interesting and believable than Ari. Cvareh is the trickster sort of character who seems to flip flop between wanting to save himself, work for the Dragons, or help Ari, and the most interesting twists of the story seem to come from his actions.

The story’s action moves at a brisk pace, and I enjoyed that about the book. I just wish I had a bit more of Ari’s backstory to connect her motive with her actions and reactions because a lot of Ari’s life and relationships read completely unclear. I am going to see what the reviews are for the second one to gauge reactions to what happens next before I pick it up, but I hope it focuses more on Cvareh’s side of things!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable fantasy if someone’s ready to take a step up from “YA” fantasy and try something new.

A review copy of this book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

BOOK REVIEW: The Collapsing Empire, by John ScalziTitle: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Series: The Interdependency #1
Published by Tor Books
Published: March 21st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 333
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

 It worked because on a social level, apparently enough people wanted it to, and because at the heart of it, billions of humans living in fragile habitats prone to mechanical and environmental breakdowns and degradation, and with limited natural resources, were better off relying on each other than trying to go it alone. Even without the Interdependency, being interdependent was the best way for humanity to survive.

I feel like I should preface this by saying that other than this I have only read Old Man’s War (and his twitter/blog), so for a second excursion into someone else’s work, I was hoping for the same kind of humor, wit, and intelligence that I saw in Old Man’s War. And I did. I also felt like his writing strengthened all around, which is an excellent thing to see going from a debut novel to his most recent. (And now I feel like I really should get the ball rolling on reading everything else he’s done!) His work was pitched to me as SF101, something easy enough for the unseasoned science fiction to access but something even well-read science fiction readers will enjoy for the references and subversions of the genre’s tropes. Fun fact: I teach Old Man’s War in my science fiction freshman seminar!

The Collapsing Empire is the start to a new space opera series about a whole smattering of planets across the universe connected by something called the Flow, which bends the rules of physics and allows for relatively speedy space travel between systems. As one might imagine, trade develops between the planets, an interplanetary government is set up (called the Interdependency), and everything appears to be stable. But stability apparently is only an illusion.

In addition to his accessible science fiction, Scalzi is a master at creating a cast of characters with whom you’ll laugh and for whom you’ll root. Kiva, who swears like it’s going out of style, is probably one of my favorite characters in sf. Cardenia is the newly-throned Emperox who is easy to relate to because no matter how hard we try, we’re never really prepared when the big, difficult things happen.

The Collapsing Empire reflects on current events, especially climate change, political leaders, interplanetary/international politics, and the consequences of those things if we’re not careful and considerate. It also shows us the humanity behind those making the decisions and those affected by those decisions. The private lives of these characters are explored in an unrestrained way and are allowed to be whomever they are, and it feels weird to write that even today because a lot of sf tends to fall into “traditional” tropes of black and white ideologies. It’s nice not to bat at eye at the idea of bisexual characters, or characters on any part of the spectrum. It’s nice to find humanity in double-crossy, deviant, sweary merchants. And while feeling fresh on many levels, it feels like an homage to traditional space opera stories, making it a lot of fun.

My only major qualm with it is that the first book ends abruptly. Like literally right when the action ramps up. I wouldn’t mind it so much if the second one was coming out soon, but the wait is going to be agony! I need to know what happens next!