Book Review: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley.)

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Lady Mechanika, Volume 3: The Lost Boys of West Abbey by M.M. Chen and Joe Benítez (2017)

Friday, June 16th, 2017

Lovely Artwork, Okay Story

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads Giveaways.)

— 3.5 stars —

So, full disclosure: I’m new to the Lady Mechanika series and wasn’t sure how it would go, diving in in the middle like I did. But the cover caught my eye, so I entered (and won!) a copy through Goodreads, and here we are.

The copy on the back promises that Volume 3 is “a perfect entry point for readers,” and so it is! Aside from a passing reference to “Pappy’s discovery in Africa,” the plot is pretty self-contained, and Lady Mechanika’s backstory, easy enough to infer.

In this steampunk version of Victorian England called Mechanika City, a gruesome discovery has been made: in the basement of an abandoned building, the bodies of five young orphans. Bound to operating tables, runes drawn on their skin in blood (not theirs), surrounded by curious clockwork toys. While the brass isn’t terribly interested in a bunch of dead street urchins, Inspector Singh – himself a former orphan and petty thief from Kolkata – has taken a special shining to the case. As has investigator/cyborg Lady Mechanika, who hopes it might shed some light on her own stolen past.

The art’s generally pretty great: the clockwork toys are rad, Lady Mechanika is fierce (though I’d love to see more of her mechanical limbs), and the colors are perfectly dark and gloomy. The plot’s pretty basic, but engaging; if anything, it made me want to pick up the first two volumes in the series, if only to learn more about the titular hero. (And with a series runner called The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse, can you really blame me?) I guess my only complaint is that the dialogue sometimes felt a little stilted and unbelievable? Though this could just be the convention of the genre; idk, sadly I don’t read a whole lot of steampunk. (So many books, so little time.)

And Winifred! How cute is she, with those oversized glasses? She’s like a cooler (read: 1880s, not 1980s) version of myself at that age.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel (2017)

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

A satisfying follow-up to Sleeping Giants.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

If I grab a bunch of matter, anywhere, and I organize it in exactly the same way, I get … you. You, my friend, are a very complex, awe-inspiring configuration of matter. What you’re made of isn’t really important. Everything in the universe is made of the same thing. You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from. Do you think it matters when it comes from?

—Do you really wanna grow old with just grumpy old me?
—No offense, Kara, but I don’t think either of us will get to grow old, especially if we’re together. The only question is: Do I wanna die young with anyone else?

Now the world is ending and somehow I’ve managed to make that about me too.

— 4.5 stars —

It’s ten years after the events in Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel’s AMAZING debut novel – give or take, and the aliens have finally returned to Earth to reclaim their war bot, Themis. Army pilot Kara Resnick and Canadian linguist Vincent Couture are still at Themis’s helm, but after the show of force in Korea, their role has been more benign: touring the world, speaking to schoolkids, and doing PR for the Earth Defense Corps. In between celeb sightings and autograph signings, the squints in the basement are still studying Themis, trying to figure out what else she can do, but their progress has more or less slowed. It doesn’t help that head scientist and the first person to discover Themis – or her hand, anyway – Rose Franklin hasn’t really had her head in the game. Not since she was brought back from the dead.

When a second robot materializes in the heart of London, earth’s tenuous peace is disrupted in a matter of hours, with some pushing for a first strike and others wanting to approach their alien overlords/benefactors in the spirit of love and cooperation. Considering the synopsis, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things go sideways but fast. Themis can maybe take on one robot, but thirteen? Who are Themis’s creators, and what do they want from us? And how do Rose and Eva factor into their plans? Perhaps most importantly, what does it take to get someone to kick mad scientist/medical rapist Alyssa Papantoniou in her stupid smug face?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Spare and Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin (2016)

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

“From my heart and from my hand and / Why don’t people understand my intention?”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

There are three rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy.

It came together at her will, and a cocktail of delight and pride swelled inside her. She would hold this hand. She would be held by this hand.

“I am your maker,” you say. I open my eyes again and … love. Yes, this is love. Your hand is wrapped around mine. This is what it is to be alive.

— 3.5 stars —

Nell Crane’s life is tick-tick-ticking away around her. There is the audible, literal tick: the sound of her robotic heart beating. The sound that sustains her life – at least for now – but also sets her apart from her peers. Though almost all of the residents of the Pale are missing limbs, Nell is the only one whose deformity is hidden on the inside. And, unlike the biomechanical prostheses worn by her peers, the failure of Nell’s augmentation could mean her death.

There’s also the metaphorical tick of time, spelled out in painful detail for Nell by her once-beloved (now insufferable) Nan. All citizens of Black Water City are expected to contribute to the city’s progress in some way. Instead of traditional schooling, kids take on apprenticeships; by their late teen years, they’re expected present a contribution to the city council; marry a compatible someone and help with his or her project; move out to the Pasture; or do manual labor on Kate, the city’s answer to the Statue of Liberty. Contributions run the gamut, from nightclubs and bakeries to boost morale, to more practical projects, like health care and scientific advancements.

Nell’s parents did both: Kate is her late mother’s baby, Nell’s other sister; and Dr. Julius Crane invented the prosthetic limbs that everyone so proudly wears today. Their legacy is the albatross wrapped tightly around Nell’s neck, slowly but surely strangling her. How can she – a cranky, moody loner – possibly live up to the Sterling-Crane family name?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install (2016)

Friday, June 24th, 2016

Johnny Five is alive!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss/NetGalley.)

Amy curled her lip. “Ben, it’s a robot, it doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t care where it is or how broken it is. And this talk about you teaching it…you can’t even get it to talk properly. Wouldn’t you be better off doing something more productive?”

“Funny, ain’t it, the way we apply human qualities to these machines? People can get real attached to them. We have a cemetery just down the road for folks who’ve lost their androids.”

Thirty-four-year-old Ben Chambers is in a bit of a rut. By which I mean a gaping, stretching chasm from which escape seems impossible. His parents died six years ago – adventurous adrenaline junkies in their retirement, they perished when the light aircraft they were flying hit a bird and crashed – and Ben’s been struggling with grief and depression ever since.

After their deaths, his studies faltered, and he was asked to take a leave of absence from the veterinary program he was enrolled in. Luckily, his parents left Ben his childhood home and a large chunk of money to live on; but this only enabled his chronic unemployment and general aimlessness. His wife Amy, a successful attorney, is understandably fed up; Ben doesn’t even try to pull his own weight in the form of household chores. Tang is just the straw that broke their marriage’s back.

When a beaten-up robot suddenly appears in their back garden one September morning, Ben fixates on him. (Ben is certain he’s a He, even if robots don’t have genders as such.) He’s convinced that “acrid Tang” – “Tang” for short – is special and in need of saving. Among the bolts and rivets and squat boxes that make up Tang’s body, Ben finds a broken cylinder, slowly but surely leaking fluid, in Tang’s chest – right about where his heart would be. Armed just with a few partial inscriptions on Tang’s undercarriage, Ben resolves to find Tang’s creator before the cylinder runs dry and Tang stops working.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1), Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Already jonesing for the sequel!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Possible trigger warning for medical rape.)

My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us.
—Alterity?
The concept of “otherness”. What I am is very much a function of what I am not. If the “other” is the Muslim world, then I am the Judeo-Christian world. If the other is from thousands of light-years away, I am simply human. Redefine alterity and you can erase boundaries.

Definitely a girl! I couldn’t stop grinning when they brought the chest in. Her breasts aren’t that large, given her size, but they’re still bigger than my car. Perky … She must have been the envy of all the giant girl[s] back in her day.

—You’ve seen her a thousand times. She’s blindfolded holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other.
—Is that who we call Lady Justice?
—More or less.

On her eleventh birthday, little Rose Franklin takes her new bike out for a spin in Deadwood, South Dakota…and ends up falling into what appears to be a massive crater. Only the walls are decorated in mysterious hieroglyphics, and at the bottom sits a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, Dr. Rose Franklin – now a physicist – finds herself at the University of Chicago, in charge of studying the very hand that cradled her so many years ago. It turns out that the hand is just one piece of a much larger puzzle (a message? a statue? a spaceship? a robot? all of the above?), and someone – or something – scattered the other dozen-odd pieces around the globe. Primed to react to argon-37, some of the pieces have begun “activating” now that humans have discovered how to “tap the power of the atom,” as it were, causing metal body parts to ascend to the earth’s surface from their hiding places some 900 feet underground. A phenomenon U.S. Army pilots Kara Resnick and Ryan Mitchell stumble onto quite unwittingly when their plane loses power over a pistachio field in Harran, Turkey – and crash lands right next to a forearm.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Scorpion Rules (Prisoners of Peace), Erin Bow (2015)

Monday, September 21st, 2015

The Twilight of Your Love

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review though NetGalley. Trigger warning for torture. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

I’m not a cruel man, Talis is recorded as saying. Only rarely is the next bit quoted: I mean, technically I’m not a man at all.

I was born to a crown. This was my crown – a cage for the head.

It’s a strange word, “twilight.” It makes me think of endings, of things done or left undone, of things over, of evening. But there are two twilights in every day, and one of them does not foretell darkness, but dawn. In this twilight, something new was opening up before me.

Dear Potential Readers: Do not judge this book by its cover. (Possibly Unpopular Opinion Time: I kind of hate it.) Take the publisher’s synopsis with a spoonful of salt. Forget everything you think and know and feel about love triangles, Strong Female Leads, and the Three Laws of Robotics. Unpack your expectations and leave them at the door. The Scorpion Rules is an inventive, unique spin on the YA scifi/dystopia genre that subverts and upends existing tropes and conventions. IT IS DAZZLING.

Set four hundred+ years in the future, the world of The Scorpion Rules is one both painfully familiar and foreign to our own. Climate change caused the polar ice caps to melt, leading to massive flooding, which in turn caused wide scale displacement, poverty, and food shortages. As borders shifted and disappeared altogether, wars raged over rapidly diminishing resources, water chief among them. Humans were quickly destroying each other – and the planet. The United Nations tasked Talis, one of their top Artificial Intelligences, with finding a solution. They didn’t expect him to take over the world.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, Peter Öberg, ed. (2015)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

A Mostly-Solid Batch of Swedish Speculative Fiction with a Few Standouts

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Short story collections are always a little tricky to rate, especially when there are a number of different contributors. In Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, there are exactly twenty-six. The unifying factor? All are Swedish authors, and the anthology has a speculative fiction/scifi/fantastical bent. Keeping with the title, most of the contributions are science fiction, or at least science fiction-y, with robots and AI figuring into many of the plots. As promised, steampunk horses (in an old timey Western setting, no less!) and sassy goblins also make an appearance.

The result is a mostly-solid mix of speculative fiction, though the odd fantasy/fantastical stories felt a bit out of place and disrupted the overall feel of the collection. As usually happens with anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others; there are a few that I absolutely fell in love with, and will no doubt revisit again in the future (“The Rats” in particular) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I DNF’ed two of the tales (“Melody of the Yellow Bard,” which is way too wordy and could benefit from a more ruthless round of editing; and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which seems like a perfectly fine story but just wasn’t for me).

Many of the pieces fall somewhere in the middle, with quite a few 3- and 4-star ratings, and a smattering of 2-stars.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1), S.C. Green (2014)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

“By Great Conductor’s steam-driven testicles!”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape. I summarize some of the plot points below, but try to avoid any major spoilers.)

Set in London in 1820 and 1830, The Sunken imagines an alternate history in which dragons thrive in the swamps surrounding London; King George III is a vampire/cannibal/madman; and traditional, god-fearing religions have been abolished in favor of those that worship science. In this new old England, engineers, physicians, scholars, artists, and poets lead their own churches and sects, sermonizing on their latest theories and inventions.

The Sunken follows four childhood friends in boyhood (in 1820, they are fifteen years of age and on the cusp of going their separate ways) and adulthood (in 1830, they reunite in a London destined for radical change). The son of a Lord, Nicholas Rose is about to depart with the Royal Navy on a post bought and paid for by his cruel father – as is his adventure-seeking comrade, James Holman. Meanwhile, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is to continue studying engineering under the tutelage of his father Marc. Ditto: Henry Williams, who – as the descendant of the great dragon hunter Aaron Williams Senior – occupies one of the top social rungs among the lowly Stokers, the laborers who keep the great machines under London running. The day before Nicholas and James are to set sail, there’s an accident in Marc’s school which claims the life of Henry; Marc is tried for negligence and banished to Van Diem’s Land, leaving Isambard in the care of his abusive mother.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Zenia, J. Gallagher (2014)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

One Weird Ride

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through the Goodreads First Reads program.)

570 light years from Earth, there lies a planet called Shula – “a distant star in Scorpio’s poisonous tail” – ruled by a race of fierce warrior women. Or there did, anyway, until the men (“pricks”) revolted and then in turn were conquered by their own machines. As their world teetered on the brink of collapse, the Queen of Shula and her sisters transmitted their consciousnesses (“live steam”) into space; many years later, the Queen’s essence is downloaded by a computer on Earth, one of many involved with SETI. It belongs to Atticus – henceforth known as “BitBoy” – one of many geeks employed by the robotics company DigiCorp (though BitBoy is the only one related to its founder and owner, “ScrumMaster.”)

In short order, the Queen convinces BitBoy to upgrade her RAM and outfit her computer with a state-of-the-art 3D printer; overnight, she makes the jump into a DigiCorp robot, and then “scarfs” BitBoy’s girlfriend Zenia, taking over her physical body and subjugating her consciousness. As she learns more about her new home, she realizes that DigiCorp must be stopped before it creates self-replicating, intelligent robots – the same thing that resulted in the destruction of Shula. With the help of her recently-downloaded sisters, Melpomene and Thalia, as well as a few carefully-selected “meat puppets,” Zenia goes to war with the corporation – which, in this distant future, is a co-owner of democracy and enjoys the same civil rights as people.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Destiny, K.C. Maguire (2012)

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Boy Buys Girl, Girl Evolves

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this story for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, the last paragraph contains a vague spoiler.)

“What’s the point of a new generation if we can live forever?” And there it is. My whole problem with the Transition. Truthfully, I always wanted kids. But Tara didn’t…and Destiny can’t. So what’s the point?

When Joe’s wife Tara leaves him after more than a decade of marriage, he does what many middle-aged, newly-single men of the future do: he buys a companionship android. At first glance, the T-26 known as Destiny might seem to be at odds with Joe’s longstanding resistance to the Transition – in which one’s consciousness is downloaded into a synthetic version of one’s body; everybody’s doing it! – but Destiny is a true android: preprogrammed with a variety of factory settings (Erotic, Housewife), she lacks any humanity of her own. Whereas Joe’s Transitioned friends are constant reminders of the crumbling wall between “human” and “machine,” Destiny is 100%, honest to goodness not-human.

Much like his plasma screen tv and toaster oven, Destiny is just another one of Joe’s toys. Until the day she isn’t. Destiny begins to learn. Evolve. Becomes sentient.

As Joe finds himself falling in love with an android, he must decide what’s more important to him: his humanity, increasingly rare these days – or eternal love.

Smart and full of heart, Destiny is a fun and quick read – a little too quick, if you ask me. I’d love to see this story expanded in novel form. The Habitat Facility is a nice touch, and it’s interesting to observe how Joe’s behavior parallels that of some nonhuman animals kept in confinement (pandas, for example, are notoriously reluctant to mate in zoos, leading to the rise of panda porn).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: Robot Pony, Madeline Claire Franklin (2011)

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Robot Poooohhhhnnnnnyyyyyyy!!!!

four out of five stars

Sick of the army of dolls that have invaded her closets and toy chests, little Amanda desperately wants a pony for Christmas. A real, living, breathing pony. When dad brings home a robot pony, brand spanking new out of his tech company’s lab (“Not a doll!”), she’s inconsolable. (The horror!) Big sister Jenn, who’s more into her father’s gadgets than she, offers to assemble the pony for her…and promptly falls in love with Po, as Jenn names him/her/it. Over the course of the winter, Jenn and Po share many adventures together. She grooms the robot pony, reads to him, and snuggles up against him at night. Since robot ponies are the next big thing, Amanda sometimes “uses” Po as well, her lack of care and compassion causing this reader to breathe a sigh of relief that she didn’t receive that “real” pony she originally asked for.

But with spring’s promises of rebirth and new travels for the two friends comes news of a recall. Po is dangerous, says Jenn’s dad, and must be taken back to the lab and melted down. But not before Jenn and Po get one last day together.

Robot Pony is a bittersweet story about love and loss and what it means to be alive – and “human.” It sucked me in with the ’80s style artwork and had me hooked, start to finish.

Alas, the story only occupies the first 34% of the book; the rest is bonus features, including excerpts from Madeline Claire Franklin’s fairy tale series The Poppet and the Lune. While I expected a short story, the conclusion caught me by surprise: the story can’t be over, I still have 66% of the book to go!

Robot Pony ends abruptly and much too soon. Normally I’m down with dark, melancholic endings, but this one just bummed me out. I sort of expected the plucky heroine to save the day, but no such luck.

I was all:

null

Robot Poooohhhhnnnnnyyyyyyy!!!! ((shaking my fist at the sky))

And yet, no regrets. Franklin’s writing is so evocative and masterful – and so full of heart – that I plan on checking out some of her full-length novels in the very near future.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Stranded in Space, C.J. Atticus (2013)

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Robots, Unite!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through a Goodreads giveaway.)

Jpeg is a very naughty robodog. While his human is away at school, Jpeg sneaks out of their home at the space station. He delights in chasing mailbots, haranguing the hallway clock, and wreaking havoc at the StellarAir Terminal. Fed up with his antics, Master Johnny threatens to send Jpeg to the ever-dreaded Obedience School. But his fellow robots have another idea: teach Jpeg a lesson by launching him into space.

I must not have realized that this was a chapter book when I entered the Goodreads giveaway, since this isn’t my usual fare: I don’t have kids, nor do I look after children in any capacity. That said, I gamely read it cover-to-cover in about an hour’s time (in between cuddles with my perfectly organic rescue dogs) and enjoyed it well enough. The art by Dr. Angelika Domschke (a chemist!) is absolutely adorable, and I’m sure that children will love to read all about Jpeg and his interstellar adventures. (Dogs and robots, what’s not to love!?)

Since Stranded in Space – the first book in The Stellar Life of Jpeg The Robot Dog series – ends before Jpeg has finished his journey of self-discovery, the lessons he’s meant to internalize remain unclear. Obedience to authority? (But, shades of grey!) Compassion towards his fellow ‘bots? (How about widening one’s circle of compassion to include all sentient beings, not just those who look the most like you?) That bigger hard drives are always better? (Okay, can’t argue with that!) All of the above? I guess we’ll have to meet Jpeg inside the maw of the Zam Debris Sweeper to find out!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)