Review

Vacation Reading: Okorafor, Blake, and Kagan

One of many nice things about getting away for vacation earlier this month was the chance to catch up on some reading.

It began with Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti: Home [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the sequel to her award-winning novella Binti (reviewed here). The new novella will be coming out from Tor.com in early 2017, but I got the chance to read an early copy and provide a blurb. The story has Okorafor’s trademark imagination and creativity and wonderful worldbuilding. Binti (the character) is once again caught in the middle of cultural conflicts, both between humanity and the alien Meduse, and among her own people and family.

I loved getting to see more of Binti’s home and family, as well as the additional background and history. In some ways, this felt a bit more introspective than the first novella. We don’t get the same level of world-changing conflicts and resolution. The focus is more personal, and I thought that worked well.

My one complaint is that this is part two of a trilogy, and had a bit of a cliffhanger ending. But that’s just more reason for me to put the third Binti novella on my To Be Read list, and to hope Okorafor writes and publishes it soon!

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Wickedly Powerful coverNext up was Deborah Blake‘s Wickedly Powerful [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the third book in her Baba Yaga paranormal romance series. “Baba Yaga is not one woman, but rather a title carried by a chosen few. They keep the balance of nature and guard the borders of our world.”

This book follows the third of the three U.S.-based Baba Yagas, a woman named Bella Young with a fiery temper and magic to match. An accident with her power when she was young led her to isolate herself so she wouldn’t hurt anyone else. Her only company is the dragon Koshka, who lives disguised as a Norwegian Forest Cat.

Enter scarred (inside and out) former Hotshots firefighter Sam Corbett, who works the fire watch tower in a forest plagued by magical blazes. Blazes Bella has been sent to investigate.

These books are fun. I read this one in about two days. Bella, Sam, and Koshka are all quite likeable, even as their insecurities lead them through the usual romantic stumbles and misunderstandings. The villain is unapologetically evil. It’s a nice wrap-up to the three Baba Yaga books, and a good bridge into Blake’s next set of stories.

My only minor complaint is that the confrontation with the villain felt like it ended a bit too quickly and abruptly.

This one does rely a bit on events that happened in book two, so there might be a few minor moments of confusion if you’ve not read the earlier books, but you can still read, follow, and enjoy this one on its own if you so desire.

In short, I’d call this a good old-fashioned comfort read. With a cat-who’s-really-a-dragon. But then, aren’t most cats?

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Finally, my son and I finished reading Mirable [Amazon | B&N], by Janet Kagan.

I’ve talked about Janet’s books a few times before, but I’m happy to say my 11-year-old really enjoyed this one. It’s set on the planet Mirabile, in the early days of a human colony. The geneticists back on Earth really wanted to make sure the colonists had redundant copies of various species, so not only did they provide frozen embryos, they also backed up genetic codes in different creatures. So your dandelions might suddenly give birth to a swarm of bumblebees, or a cat might have a litter of raccoons. And then there are the Dragon’s Teeth — hybrids like the Kangaroo Rex or the Frankenswine…

The book is made up of six stories. We were reading the old print edition, which has bridge sections between each story, but I’ve been told the new ebook edition lacks those. Regardless, its a lot of fun.

Annie Jason Masmajean is a wonderful character, a gruff, fierce, loving older woman devoted to the people and wildlife of her new home. She also knows her way around a shotgun, gets a lovely romance with lots of making out, and is just generally awesome.

The secondary characters are great as well, and Kagan obviously put some thought into the cultural norms and makeup of the colony. And if some of the science strains credulity a bit, it’s all in the service of creating an imaginative, creative, and shamelessly fun world.

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The Tribe Trilogy, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

I met Ambelin Kwaymullina in 2014 at Continuum. Later that year, I read and talked about the first two books in her young adult Tribe series. At the time, only the first book was available in the U.S.

As of today, the second book is out in the U.S. as well, but the third is only available through the Australian publisher, as far as I can tell. Fortunately, I have connections down under, and was able to get my hands on the final volume of the trilogy 🙂

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf Cover The Disappearance of Ember Crow Cover The Foretelling of Georgie Spider Cover

Kwaymullina describes the series as:

…a three-book dystopian series set on a future earth where the world was ripped apart by an environmental cataclysm known as ‘the Reckoning’. The survivors of the Reckoning live in an ecotopia where they strive to protect the Balance of the world, the inherent harmony between all life. But anyone born with an ability – Firestarters who control fire, Rumblers who can cause quakes, Boomers who make things explode – is viewed as a threat to the Balance. Any child or teenager found to have such a power is labeled an ‘Illegal’ and locked away in detention centres by the government.

Except for the ones who run.

Sixteen year old Ashala Wolf leads a band of rebels who she names her Tribe. Sheltered by the mighty tuart trees of the Firstwood and the legendary saurs who inhabit the grasslands at the forest’s edge, the Tribe has been left alone – until now. A new detention centre is being built near the forest, and when The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf begins, Ashala has been captured by the government and is on her way to interrogation…

I really enjoyed these books, set in a world of powers and politics and love and cruelty. Georgie Spider was a particularly good PoV character for the final book. She’s trying so hard to understand the various futures she sees, searching so hard for the best path that she sometimes loses herself. She’s so dedicated, and you just want to give her a hug and take her out for ice cream and tell her it’s going to be okay, but they don’t actually need you to do that because they have each other. The family bond connecting the Tribe is so powerful, and so wonderful…even though the events that made the Tribe necessary are so horrible.

This book does a nice job of bringing things to a head. We learn more about the history of various characters and what happened after the Reckoning. A lot of powerful people want to reshape the world, but Ashala Wolf is the only one with the power to do literally that. Which means a lot of people want her dead, and Georgie is desperately trying to keep her alive.

I appreciate the parallels to the real world. Kwaymullina talks about this a bit in the author’s note to book three:

The Citizenship Accords … are based upon legislation that applied to Aboriginal people here in Australia, and particularly on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 (which was finally repealed in 1971. This legislation offered a strange kind of citizenship, if it could be called that, because what it did was exempt Aboriginal people who obtained a citizenship certificate from the discriminatory restrictions which only applied to them in the first place because they were Aboriginal. These restrictions included being unable to marry without the government’s permission, or even to move around the State. Citizenship could be easily lost, for example, by associating with Aboriginal friends or relatives who did not have citizenship. Many Aboriginal people referred to citizenship papers as dog licenses or dog tags — a license to be Australian in the land that Aboriginal people had occupied for over sixty thousand years.

She also talks about the connection between the conflicts of the books and the battles of today. Battles between fear and hope, between hate and acceptance, between greed and balance.

They’re good books, and I recommend them. If you’re in the U.S., you can use the following links:

I’m really hoping the U.S. publisher will pick up the third book soon…

Avengers 3: Civil War: The Black Panther/Spider-Man Movie: Thoughts and Discussion

My wife wanted to go see Captain America: Civil War on Mother’s Day. Because she is awesome.

I don’t have the time for a full review, but had lots of thoughts I wanted to put out there. And hey, what the internet really needs is one more place for people to discuss the latest Marvel movie, right?

If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now…

SPOILERS AHOY

Civil War Meme

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Batman V Superman Review, With Spoilers

We saw it. I’d seen a number of reviews floating around the internet, so I walked into the theater with pretty low expectations. That helped a lot.

Ultimately, it felt like a movie that needed at least one more rewrite, or maybe one fewer. It was better than I expected it to be…but that doesn’t make it a good movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Superman and Batman

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Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] is one of the finalists for the Nebula Award in the Novella category. From the official description:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself but first she has to make it there, alive.

Like all of Okorafor’s work, Binti is full of imagination, fantastic worldbuilding, and layer upon layer of cultural development and conflict. Binti herself is a 16-year-old harmonizer, a gifted, courageous girl and the first of her people to leave the planet. She faces alienation and racism and loneliness, but she’s determined to grow and learn. She’s on her way to study at Oomza Uni when her ship is attacked by the Meduse, a violent, jellyfish-like race with a vendetta against humanity.

Communication is at the heart of the story. An ancient device called an edan allows Binti to communicate with the Meduse. It’s the key to everything that follows. Communication and harmony as the antidote to violence and war. It’s not easy; in fact, it’s terrifying and dangerous. That’s part of what makes Binti’s story so powerful.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, as Binti tries first to survive the war between humans and Meduse, and then to change that war. But this isn’t a story you read for the plot. You read for the beautiful characterization, the deep cultural clashes both among Binti’s people and between humans and other races, and for enough fascinating ideas to fill several novels.

I finished the story wanting more, and will be waiting impatiently for a novel set in this universe.

You can read an excerpt of the novella here.

On the Edge of Gone, by Corinne Duyvis

On the Edge of Gone - CoverCorinne Duyvis‘s second novel is On the Edge of Gone [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a young adult book that takes a familiar SF idea — the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, and only a fraction of humanity will be able to escape on generation ships — and turns it into something that feels fresh, personal, and intense.

From the publisher’s description:

January 29, 2035

That’s the day the comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter outside their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time. A last-minute meeting leads them to something better than a temporary shelter—a generation ship, scheduled to leave Earth behind to colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But everyone on the ship has been chosen because of their usefulness. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay. Can she obtain a spot before the ship takes flight? What about her mother and sister?

When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?

What truly made this book work for me was Denise. The story is told from her point of view, and it’s intense. You get her fear and despair, her desperation, her helplessness… It’s pretty unrelenting. Which makes sense, given the events of the book, but I admit I did something I almost never do. When I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, I had to flip to the end to see if Denise would get a spot on the ship or not.

Normally, I’m not a big proponent of skipping ahead, but in this case, knowing actually helped reduce some of my own anxiety reading the book.

I’m not autistic, but Duyvis’s portrayal of Denise felt respectful and honest. Denise is first and foremost an individual, a character not defined by autism or any other single dimension. I appreciated seeing through her PoV, her frustration at how others treat her, her struggles when she’s overwhelmed, her love for her sister, her love of cats (oh, that one scene…), not to mention things like trying to figure out how she feels about a boy, or trying to fit in with a new group.

I particularly liked Denise’s ongoing conflict between wanting desperately to secure her own safety vs. risking that safety to try to help her sister and mother. It felt very honest. We all like to imagine we’d do the noble thing, but I think most of us would feel as torn as Denise, especially given her age.

The ending didn’t work quite as well for me. Partly, it felt a bit rushed, with a lot happening and changing in a relatively short span. It also pushed Denise into a central role in a way we hadn’t really seen before, and didn’t feel like it had been completely built up. I like a lot of things about the ending; I just felt like it needed a bit more groundwork to get there.

It’s an ambitious and powerful book, one that makes you think and question and feel. Definitely worth reading, in my opinion.

On the Edge of Gone comes out on March 8.

Thoughts on Steven Universe

One of the things I love about the internet and social media is finding new things to geek out about. In the cartoon realm, last time it was Avatar: The Last Airbender. This time, in no small part because of Amal El-Mohtar and Sunil Patel, it was Steven Universe. I’m going to try to keep this post relatively spoiler-free, but no promises about the comments.

Steven Universe Characters

How to summarize this show… It’s fantasy that morphs into science fiction. It’s a team of superpowered women (the Crystal Gems) and the titular character Steven, who’s half-Gem, half-human. It’s got action and humor and music and surprisingly complex worldbuilding and relationships and character development. It’s a show that embraces diversity in multiple dimensions. It’s at times over-the-top goofy, and then turns around and delivers stories as emotionally powerful as just about anything else on television.

There’s plenty of action, an evil space empire, monsters of the week, and lots of pulpy SF/F-style goodness, including a full-on dystopic society, clone-type servants, spaceships, robots, swords, teleportation platforms, an altered Earth, etc.

It’s also subversive and refreshing, challenging assumptions about family and romance and friendship and trust and gender and sexuality and beauty and love and so much more.

So after ConFusion, I came home and binge-watched the available episodes, catching up to the mid-point of the second season. Here are some of the things about this show that make me happy…

Body Acceptance/Positivity:

Rose QuartzLet’s start with Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. Rose was the leader of the Crystal Gems, who eventually fell in love with a human and gave up her physical form so Steven could be born/created. Not only is this woman portrayed as a warrior and the leader of the rebel Gems, she’s consistently treated as beautiful and beloved. Greg (Steven’s father) falls hard for her. The other Crystal Gems love her dearly. She’s beautiful, powerful, strong, and competent, and none of this is ever questions.

Then there are the rest of the Gems. Pearl is very slender. Amethyst is shorter and heavier. Steven himself is unapologetically plump. The whole show gives us a more realistic range of people’s shapes and sizes than anything else out there, and that’s never used as a source of cheap laughs. Every character is treated with respect for who they are, and every character is shown to be both strong and important to the team.

Crystal Gems

Race and Gender:

Sometimes people who argue that they’re “colorblind” about race will say something like, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, or purple.” It’s an obnoxious refrain, but it makes me wonder if the creators of the show deliberately decided to make the three Gems black, white, and purple. Steven and his father are white. Steven’s love interest Connie is Indian. (And also a pretty badass swordfighter and a great character in her own right.) Here are some of the secondary and background characters from the show:

Steven Universe Characters

As for gender, the show deliberately flips the usual script. Instead of a bunch of male Avengers and Black Widow, or a bunch of male Ninja Turtles and April, or a bunch of male Smurfs and Smurfette, we have a team of women and Steven. But the show goes deeper, challenging gender norms and roles on an ongoing basis. Steven is unashamedly emotional, celebrating and crying and running around with his feelings on his sleeve belly button gem. When Steven and Connie fuse (it’s a Gem thing), they form Stevonnie, who goes by gender-neutral they/them pronouns. Stevonnie is accepted for who they are. Garnet at one point describes them as “perfect.”

Love:

Garnet: I love youI love that these characters have so much love and respect and affection for one another. They still argue and butt heads and get angry at one another at times, but underneath it all is so much love and caring. Whether it’s everyone’s love and protectiveness for Steven, Steven’s love for…well, pretty much everyone and everything, Steven and Connie’s developing relationship, the wonderful dynamic between Steven and his father, the pain of Pearl’s love and memories about Rose, the perfection that is Ruby and Sapphire… I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but it just makes me happy to watch.

Also, did I mention the canonical same-sex relationship?

Ruby Sapphire

Other Thoughts:

  • Lots of good, fun music. My favorite is Garnet’s song, “Stronger Than You,” from the Season One finale. (Possible spoilers at that link.) But I like that music is just a part of their lives, particularly Steven with his ukulele, and Greg (Steven’s father), the former sort-of-pro musician.
  • The only episode I ended up stopping was the crossover with Uncle Grandpa. Though I loved the “our ship!” joke. Love a show that’s aware of fandom.
  • The writers do a great job thinking about the implications of different kinds of Gem technology and their society. The exploration of fusion for good and evil is particularly wonderful. And powerful. Garnet’s reaction to discovering homeworld had experimented with forcing Gem fragments to fuse without their consent…whoa.
  • Redemption arc! 🙂
  • Watching Amethyst’s development and growth through flashbacks, particularly seeing her more feral aspects through Greg’s memories.
  • All of Pearl’s backstory and struggles and stumbles and growth and development. The more you learn about her character’s history and place in Gem society, the more amazing a character she becomes.
  • Plenty of silliness. I approve!

In Conclusion:

It’s an impressive feat of storytelling. Highly recommended.

For those who’ve seen it, what do you think? What do you love (or not love) about the show? What all have I missed here?

Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, by Patrick Samphire

Dragon Tomb - CoverNormally, I try not to gloat too much about the perks of being an author, but I’m gonna make an exception in this case. Because not only do I have an advance review copy of Patrick Samphire‘s first novel, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], I have the very first copy the author ever autographed. So I’m really hoping Samphire becomes the next J. K. Rowling, because when he does, I can auction this book on eBay and buy myself a nice mansion.

And you know, also because Samphire is a nice guy, and it’s a good book, and all that.

The official publisher’s description is:

Mars in 1816 is a world of high society, deadly danger, and strange clockwork machines. Pterodactyls glide through the sky, automatic servants hand out sandwiches at elegant garden parties, and in the north, the great dragon tombs hide marvels of Ancient Martian technology.

Twelve-year-old Edward Sullivan has always dreamed of becoming a spy like the ones he reads of in his favorite sci-fi magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. Instead, he spends his days keeping his eccentric family from complete disaster … that is, until the villainous archaeologist Sir Titus Dane kidnaps Edward’s parents as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb. Edward sets out on a perilous journey to save his parents and protect the dragon tombs in the process. Turns out spywork is a bit more challenging than he had imagined….

I read this one to my 10-year-old son, who goes by Jackson on the internet. So I invited him to help me review it. My questions are in bold, followed by his responses.

In your words, what is this book about?

The book is about the family, and the father is an inventor. At the beginning of the book, they run into their cousin Freddie who stole a map to a secret dragon tomb which is a tomb of the ancient Martian emperors. By the way, this is all on Mars, and it’s set in an alternate past, not an alternate future. He stole it from Sir Titus Dane, who had discovered multiple dragon tombs before, but it was proven that he stole the locations, and he actually didn’t find them. Sir Titus Dane wants to use their father’s invention, the water abacus, to decode the dragon map and find the tomb and get rich. He kidnaps their father, mother, and sister Jane. So the brother, sister, and other sister, and cousin Freddie, have to find Sir Titus and stop him. Also, Freddie is [SPOILER], and that’s pretty cool!

What did you like best about it?

I liked the funny bits, and a lot of stuff in it, like the adventure.

Who was your favorite character, and why?

Either Edward or Freddie. They’re both really cool. And Putty is pretty cool too, because she just knows absolutely everything about technology and she’s just a little kid.

What do you think about a twelve-year-old (Edward) setting out to save his family?

It was kind of like Harry Potter, but with robots instead of magic. [Note from Jim: Jackson just finished reading the Harry Potter books, so they’re on his mind a lot these days.]

Were there any parts you didn’t like?

Not really, except for the ancient Martian empire killing dragons when their owners died. I didn’t really like that, because that’s mean to the dragons.

What would be the coolest thing about visiting this Mars?

Seeing the dragons in the museums.

Who should read this book?

I think anyone who likes science fiction books should read it. Probably a lot of my friends would like it.

Do you want to read the next book in the series?

Yes!

The book is aimed at younger readers like Jackson, but I enjoyed it too. Like Jackson said, there’s plenty of action, and a cast of young, smart, determined protagonists. It’s not a book that takes itself too seriously — one of the characters is named Doctor Blood. It’s more of an old-fashioned pulp-style adventure, but without the old-fashioned sexism and racism that often went with them.

Everything wraps up rather well at the end, but with plenty of possibility for the next books. I have a few guesses about what might happen next, but we’ll wait and see when book two comes out.

Secrets of the Dragon Tomb hits bookshelves, both real and virtual, on January 12, 2016. You can read an excerpt on the publisher’s website.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending PosterI’d seen a bit of buzz about Jupiter Ascending, both positive and negative. I didn’t get around to watching it until this week.

The science is absurd, the plot is completely over the top, and about 3/4 of the way through, I figured out why it was working for me.

Spoilers Beyond This Point

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Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman

Cover: Silver on the RoadLaura Anne Gilman‘s new fantasy novel Silver on the Road [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] came out today. But I got to read it last month, because of Author Perks! I love my job 🙂

This is actually the third weird western fantasy I’ve read this year. (The others were Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory and Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, which I provided a blurb for.) Gilman’s book made a three-book streak of good, fun, engaging storytelling.

Here’s an abridged version of the publisher’s summary:

Isobel  is a child of the Territory.  She grew up in a saloon, trained to serve drinks and fold laundry, to observe the players at the card tables and report back to her boss on what she saw.  But when she comes of age, she is given a choice….

Isobel chooses power.  Chooses risk. Chooses to throw her cards in with the Devil, Master of the Territory.

But the costs of that power are greater than she ever imagined; the things she must do, the person she must become…  And she needs to learn her new role quickly: pressures from both outside the Territory and within are growing, and the Devil’s Hand has work to do…

Izzy’s job as the Devil’s Left Hand is to travel the Territory, and to discover and resolve problems. Problems like an entire town killed by what may or may not be plague; like families slaughtered; like demons and wandering magicians, both of which can be equally deadly.

The Devil hasn’t had a Left Hand in a long time, but he knows something’s stirring. He makes a separate Bargain with a rider named Gabriel, who agrees to mentor Izzy and teach her the ways of the Road. Gabriel is older and experienced, but Izzy’s the one with the responsibility and the power. If she can learn how to use it.

I loved the worldbuilding in this story. I love that the Devil both is and isn’t the figure you’re used to. In some respects, particularly the Bargains he makes, he’s very familiar … and then you realize “Devil” is just a name, and you never truly learn what he really is. There’s power and mystery there. Is he evil? He seems to be scrupulously fair in honoring the Laws and Bargains of the Territory. I’m hoping to see and learn more about him in future books.

Then there are things like the danger of the crossroads, the power of silver to cleanse evil magic, the snakes that show up in the night to whisper cryptic warnings, the alternate history of the American frontier, with various nations fighting to control the land beyond the Territory the Devil has claimed as his own.

I also appreciated the relationship between Izzy and Gabriel. Izzy is only sixteen, and Gabriel is older and rougher around the edges. It’s not set up as a romance. Instead, we start with Gabriel as teacher and evolve first into a partnership, and eventually into Izzy stepping into her role as Hand and taking the lead in making decisions and facing the darkness.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I really appreciated the way Gilman resolved things. It’s not necessarily what you’d expect, but it felt right for Izzy’s character, the story, and the world.

Also, the magician they meet is such a fun character.

I look forward to the next book in the series!

You can read a sample on Gilman’s website.

Jim C. Hines