Review of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear (Tor hardcover, February 3, 2015)
Karen is a teenager in Rapid City who works in a brothel. She’s bright and inquisitive, qualities which lead her into trouble but also allow her to learn some information that is useful to Madam Damnable, her boss. Rapid City feels like a strange steampunk San Francisco mixed with Seattle. The city is so textured and vibrant that it is itself a character in the book.
Many types of characters populate this novel, including a wide variety of ethnicities and sexualities, including Karen herself. Madam Damnable does not allow anyone to be mistreated or looked down upon and Karen follows her example. However, the setting is Victorian in flavor so the views of society and the law often conflict with the views held in the brothel.
The story structure is that of a mystery with both private detective and law enforcement characters present in the forms of Karen (the detective) and Marshall Reeves (the law enforcer). The marshall has a Native American sidekick, and so reminded Your Humble Reviewers of a more sophisticated Lone Ranger and Tonto. As with all good detective stories there is some romance in there as well. Because Karen is so young, it is really her first relationship. Her fumbling about trying to figure out how to approach Priya, a boyish young Hindu woman is quite adorable and very believable. Teenagers in love can be so sweet that adults want to smack some sense into them! It takes the girls a bit to sort out their relationship and having the confusion of a brothel fire just added to the messed up nature of teenage romance.
The clothes are described in detail and we liked that the men and boyish women got cool descriptions of their clothes too, not just the gowns. Also we liked how Bear demonstrated that class was depicted by the clothes and that this could be manipulated to make people see what you wanted them to.
The steam mech sewing machine was quite cool and used for several functions beyond sewing great gowns. The use of airships and submarines added interesting transportation complexities to the plot. The technology has a steampunk-style fantasy logic, so the odd things that some of it does are acceptable. The fantasy element is clear enough from the beginning that Angela’s engineer’s brain got the message to ignore realistic rules, that it was more like Star Wars tech rules, so that we didn’t get pulled out of the story.
Overall, it is a very interesting and quick read, one which kept Your Humble Reviewers up far too late finishing it. The book has a very sexy cover illustration, but it would have been nice to see Priya and that amazing sewing machine as well. This setting and cast of characters have great potential so please write quickly, Liz Bear, so we can read more soon!
Adult content note: While the setting is a brothel and some sex and violence are mentioned, none to speak of is on camera so it is a good read for more mature teens and adults. There are victims of violence against women depicted but sexual details are not dwelt upon and the result of the violence is not detailed. The situations dwell more on the characters’ reactions to someone who could do such horrible things. This would make a good family read for Mom with teenage girls in order to bring up some normally uncomfortable topics.
Review of Paradigms Lost by Ryk E. Spoor (Baen, Nov 15, 2014)
This is an urban fantasy set in an alternate 1999-2001. This is a vastly expanded and revised volume which contains the contents of the story entitled “Digital Knight”. Jason Wood is an expert in information searches, image processing and enhancement, pattern matching and data forensics. Some of his contracts are with law enforcement.
A dead contact on his doorstep sends Jason and his girlfriend Sylvie into an adventure involving people who don’t appear on film, werewolves (including an entire town full of them), court appearances relating to werewolf prostitution, and parties which lead to murder. This story is formatted as a murder mystery but actually Jason ends up investigating multiple crimes which are all linked together by werewolf involvement.
As the existence of werewolves being public knowledge is relatively new, the laws written with only humans in mind have not been adapted to include how they apply to werewolves. As some werewolves kill humans in order to gain power, and they are very difficult to kill or arrest, a new approach is needed. Read the rest of this entry »
Review of The Fortress in Orion: Dead Enders Book One (Pyr, Dec 2, 2014) by Mike Resnick
It’s the first volume in his new space opera series set in his Birthright Universe. Cyborgs, aliens, convicts, or war heroes can all make interesting main characters. But what if you make them into an ensemble cast of a space adventure book? Resnick has taken these different character types and made them into a mostly non-military special ops team.
This is old-school space opera with the only military character leading a bunch of civilians. There is plenty of intrigue and some interesting characters that use brains and special skills to do their jobs, not just guns. Three members of the group are women: Snake, Pandora and Circe are all strong characters, but each of them shows strength in a different way. They have very distinct looks, personalities and skill sets. The other two team members are a male human and an alien who looks like a male human, but that is really a visual illusion; his appearance won’t fool electronics or cameras.
The team has to go to a space station full of aliens to switch an alien military leader with a clone version trained to lead the aliens to peace with humanity. Nothing goes quite according to plan, of course, but we do get a battle and some very impressive fast-talking from the clone.
Your Humble Reviewers really enjoyed this book and greatly appreciated the believable relationships of the women with each other and with the male (or visually male) members of the team including the alien clone. We look forward to more volumes of Dead Enders tales.
Originator: A Cassandra Kresnov Novel (Pyr, Jan 6, 2015) by Joel Shepherd
This is the sixth volume in his space adventure series. The series is military SF from the viewpoint of a synthetic human but is more about Cassandra’s growth and change as a character than about the big picture plot. The big picture impacts her quite a bit, so you see it, but it is really about how the events impact her life, not about the events themselves. The series has quite a great deal to say about what it means to be human and what makes humans want to be parents, even when they didn’t have parents themselves. It has enough action to satisfy space adventure and special ops fans, but is centered on characters and so should satisfy readers who want more character-driven stories. Read the rest of this entry »
Review of MarsCon (January 16-18, 2015), Williamsburg, Virginia, Fort Magruder Hotel and Conference Center
In the southeast US, MarsCon is one of the best-organized science fiction conventions that focuses on writers and writing, and in this, their 25th year, they had the logistics figured out well.
This year saw a bumper crop of good writers attending with David Weber, David B. Coe, Katherine Kurtz, Alethea Kontis, and Steve White all discussing their writing, signing books, and dispensing advice for other writers. With several Baen authors in attendance, they got a visit from the Baen Roadshow as well, so we got to see all the art of upcoming books.
The con hotel and several next to it were full. Parking was at a premium but they did have crew out to try and send you to where there were spaces. We opted to stay offsite and drive elsewhere for dinner and then didn’t return for evening events. The con space was large enough for the crowds but some of the auditorium style rooms with chairs and table were a bit small for some panels (like the Baen Roadshow). The dealer room had many book dealers and several game dealers as well as artists and crafts people. The tables were spaced well on two sides, but the space at the back between the row against the wall and the row opposite was too tight, if you got people looking at one table you blocked the way for people to get by or look at stuff on the opposite table. So it would be best to visit there on Friday before it gets crowded.
Steampunk Buzz Lightyear
There were some excellent costumes including those pictured. There were also many Honorverse uniformed fans from different ships, as can be expected when David Weber is at a convention. Your Humble Reviewers really enjoyed the round robin musical session on Sunday. Many conventions only have music at times when people are doing panels, having meals after the panel tracks end, or so late on Saturday that anyone needing to be up on Sunday morning has gone off to bed!
Beast Boy from Teen Titans
This year most of the science fiction writers and scientists on panels were male and for next year the con chair wants to concentrate on women in STEM careers and women who write science fiction (many of the female guests were fantasy writers). Robot battles with all female teams were also mentioned as a possibility for next year. The female half of the review team has already volunteered for panels and robots for next year. We want next year’s female-focused events to be excellent so the males can’t complain, so all you female science people from the RTP area, volunteer! It’s really only a short drive away and will be fun. This con definitely had an oversupply of males of all ages, so women writers and scientists should volunteer for next year, and bring your younger female friends and relatives with you! Visit www.marscon.net and send email to email@example.com .
First we have two short story collection volumes by authors we know, Lee Martindale and David Drake. Lee’s volume crosses all genres and David’s is mostly time travel to hunt dinosaurs.
We enjoyed all the stories in Bard’s Road: The Collected Fiction of Lee Martindale (June 1, 2014, HarpHaven), even re-reading those we had read in their original publication. We bring you highlights of the volume, as its 29-story length makes it impractical to discuss all of them.
Our favorite has to be “Combat Shopping”, the title of which has now become our code phrase for a frustrating shopping mall trip, particularly during the holiday season. Lee does humorous pieces extremely well and we particularly like her contributions to Esther Friesner’s anthologies. Read the rest of this entry »
Review of A Call to Duty, Manticore Ascendant: Book One by David Weber and Timothy Zahn (October 7, 2014, Baen)
Timothy Zahn is writing in David Weber’s Honorverse and he presents a story from the early days of the Royal Manticoran Navy. And at 354 pages, it has to be one of the shortest books in the series. Zahn has made himself as much at home in Weber’s extensive universe as he did when writing in the Star Wars universe.
The first four years of Travis Uriah Long’s enlistment parallel the story of the RMN during the same period. There are many people who don’t care about being battle ready, more who lie, cheat and steal, and those honest, hard workers like Travis get punished when they don’t accept that behavior. His refusal to back down to someone who is wrong leads him to switch from Impeller Tech to Gravitics Tech during his post-basic training. This ends up serving him well to get him posted to a ship which is a tightly run place like he imagined they all were before he enlisted.
His outside-the-box strategies to get himself, his mates, and his ship out of danger or to rescue others are just what the revamped RMN will need. For those of you who haven’t read any of this series, this one is a good place to start because it is shorter and occurs earlier in the RMN’s timeline than the books focused on Honor Harrington.
As with all Honorverse books, you get naval battles, ship techie talk, and personal interactions of the crew. This volume was an easy read compared to some previous volumes and is of normal novel length. The plot and pacing are good and we see quite a bit of Long’s character and even what some of his officers think of him, which can be enlightening about that particular officer’s character. Hopefully we will see another volume with Travis Long in the near future.
Review of Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna (October 7, 2014, Pyr)
Airships, feral zombie-like humans created by a disease, and a Jewish hero named Ben Gold all come together to make a very interesting post-apocalyptic first novel. Ben has an airship named the Cherub, which he inherited from his father. Because of the risks of being on the ground, he lives in the airship most of the time.
Ben has hooked up with a group of scientists who want to cure the disease, but their refuge gets attacked by inhabitants from a floating city. Now he must work with the scientists, some old friends, and some new acquaintances to get them and their airships all out of the clutches of their attackers.
It’s fast-paced with good characterization and the background of the world and Ben’s history is a steady trickle throughout the story rather than being dumped on you all at once. Background information pops up as it becomes relevant to the narrative, as it should do in a well-written novel.
Ben balances a current love interest with an old girlfriend but does eventually end up with only one girl. We are left hanging as to their future beyond their surviving the final battle, so hopefully there will be another volume coming soon. This one was around 250 pages, so perhaps a second book was written at the same time and we won’t have to wait long!
Review of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (August 26, 2014, Ecco)
Well, the first thing about this book is that the publishers didn’t market it as a fantasy. It’s classed as a historical novel because it is set in 1680s Amsterdam, The Netherlands. However, the premise of the story is that someone is making tiny copies of Nella’s actual house contents and dolls of her family and people who visit the house, and then sending them to her to fill the doll house she was given as a wedding present. Nella can’t figure out how they are doing it, even when she does determine who. So it is obvious there is a sort of magic or superpowers or something going on here but it is not explained.
The weirdness with the doll house contents is not the main plot of the story. The story is about Nella and the family she has married into. Her husband is not able to be a husband really and his sister still thinks it is her house although Nella is technically the lady of the house. The servants play a big role in the story and as is usual in historicals, the mixing of upstairs and downstairs makes for secrets the entire house tries to hide from outsiders.
The setting of the house is well done with good descriptions of not just the objects but the mood people feel from the furnishings. The city is also well done: Nella walks around and you get a feel for the city. Winter makes everything feel different because of the ice and lack of easy movement in boats.
Note that although Nella is a young adult, there are some adult sex scenes in this book, some of which have same gender participants. It has a bit of blood and violence and some death. All of this is well done with enough visual to demonstrate the horror of something or show the forbidden love being revealed. The weirdness with the doll house gives the entire book a sort of creepy undertone because real world events are reflected in the parcels Nella receives from the miniaturist.
The book is very well written, particularly for a first novel. Note that the main character and her cabinet house are real but the story is made up. The novel has a definite European flavor to it, and does a good job exploring race, sex and class in a way no American writer could manage unless they had spent a great deal of time traveling. Although we primarily read and review speculative fiction, this book attracted our attention because Angela loves dolls, and like much “general” fiction today has a speculative fiction feel to it as well as the historical aspect. We would love to see what UK writer Jessie Burton would do with a historical based in the UK.