Lantern City, vol.1 by Trevor Crafts, Matthew Daley, Bruce Boxleitner, & Mairghread Scott (illustrated by Carlos Magno)

Read: 8 October, 2018

I liked this story exactly as much as I like steampunk, because that’s all there really is going on. The protagonist is Blanky McBlankface married to Longsuffering McBlankface. They have one child together, named Pathos Manpain McBlankface.

The authoritarian state that they live in is every authoritarian state you’ve ever seen, complete with the autocrat isolated in his literal tower. It even goes full Star Wars and suddenly brings out “the Empire” about 2/3rds of the way through, after having referred to the power structure as “the Greys” up until that point. What Empire, you may ask? Who knows. All we have is a single city with some unknown danger outside its walls.

The artwork is tone perfect – being competent but without much character. Facial expressions are “realistic”, which makes them look wooden and dead-eyed.

I did like the plot idea of becoming an accidental undercover spy, though. It gives McBlankface quite a shock to realize that the guards don’t live all that much better than he does. I also liked that there are resistance allies on the inside who seek him out and make his subterfuge possible, which in terms traps him in their plotting. There’s a lot of potential there for a reluctant hero to get sucked in way deeper than he ever wanted. And maybe the series will explore that further and redeem itself.

As it is, though, I appreciate the aesthetic, but this story just lacks substance.

Silo #3: Dust by Hugh Howey

Read: 21 August, 2018

With 2/3 of the series read, I couldn’t very well stop there!

I quite liked this one. The philosophical stuff takes a back seat (beyond the extremely general “people should get to make the big decisions that shape their own lives), so the story was easier to enjoy.

There’s also more religion in this one – with a cultish sect that gets in the characters’ way. This felt a bit ham-handed, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author is, himself, an atheist. For one thing, this religious sect basically kidnaps a seven year old girl and forces her to marry an adult man. The only other time we see them, they are burning books. This could have worked for me if we got a bit more into what they believed and why they were doing what they were doing, but it just seemed to be a bunch of stereotypes all rolled into one.

This is made worse by the fact that the religion itself is so underdeveloped. There are references to “the gods” multiple times throughout the book, but then the sect is suddenly talking about a single deity, which comes off way more Christian than the religion we had seen previously.

But then there’s a religious character who “sees the light” just as Jules comes to realise that religion has a function in her society. It sends a rather mixed message.

There’s quite a bit of payoff, like explaining how Solo managed to survive Silo 1’s initial attacks. I’d written this at the time as lazy writing, but it worked. I liked that many “bad” characters were redeemed through the story, particularly Anna.

Overall, it’s a satisfying end to the series. I felt like my major questions were all answered, and there’s a somewhat happy ending (at least until genetic issues start to crop up due to population bottle-necking, or the whole group starves to death in their first winter), so I can happily say that I’m done with the series.

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Silo #2: Shift by Hugh Howey

Read: 6 August, 2018

After finishing Wool, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue the series or not. The “mystery box” plot type doesn’t hold all that much of an appeal for me beyond the initial read, and I felt that Wool had already answered the major questions I had. But then I found the audiobook of Shift at my local library and really needed something to listen to while I did the dishes, and here we are.

Shift continues as a “mystery box”, except that the mysteries are much smaller. We’re not longer wondering what the hell is going on, but rather what did So-and-so have to do with it, and how exactly will the thing we know will happen come about. Small mysteries.

These are interspersed with individual tales from the silos, giving us a picture of how experiences can differ from each other in similar situations.

The narrative is still very much object-focused, so the POV characters have little in the way of individual personalities. That said, I did like the way Solo distinguished himself, even though it was merely you having experiences that were dramatically different from the other POV characters.

Overall, this was a good book to listen to while doing the dishes. The philosophical “truths” of the story are simplistic and overdone, and the characters aren’t particularly compelling, but the “mystery box” is at least an entertaining ride.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Read: May 6, 2018

This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

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The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Read: 22 June, 2017

In a post-apocalyptic world, civilization has reformed around a a collection of rules – strict regulations govern mining, weapons, technology… and citizenship. Those who develop special abilities are suppressed and imprisoned in detention centres, unless they can escape.

Ashala is written in the standard first person YA voice. It’s done well, but the voice isn’t a particularly strong one.

The plot is your average “main character is the leader of an underclass group that is rebelling against the status quo” format, and the main character is your standard “her strength is that she is just such a good leader, but she struggles with her desire for revenge” character.

It’s all fairly bog-standard, but it’s well executed. The twists are somewhat predictable, but the reveals are fun. I would have liked some more time with a few of the side characters, but I suppose that’s what sequels are for.

All in all, this book follows the YA template fairly faithfully, which fans of the genre will appreciate and haters will dislike. But while Ashala isn’t bringing much new to the table, the execution is solid. If you want to read YA, this is an excellent choice.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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