Mixed Mini-Reviews

Time for some mini-reviews so that my reading doesn’t get too far ahead of my reviewing. No theme here other than that I read them all over the last couple weeks.

Title: The Infinite and the Divine (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Robert Rath
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

This book focuses on the rivalry between two immortal necrontyr (think soulless ancient Egyptian robots with absurdly advanced technology). The conflict between the scholar and the mystic plays out over millenia, making for a slower more thoughtful plot than usual in WH40k (though there are still plenty of action set pieces involving humans, eldar, orks, and more). Warhammer 40k will never be great literature, but this is better than most.

Title: Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth:
12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice
Author: Thaddeus J. Williams
Genre: Applied Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 250 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5

I think that the author did a much better job delivering on the “without compromising truth” part of the title than the “confronting injustice” part. The book was essentially a critique of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related social justice ideas. The author raises valid concerns that Christians should consider before wholeheartedly adopting this way of thinking/acting (without denying the existence and seriousness of racism, sexism, etc.), but I didn’t feel like he offered a fleshed-out, rubber-meets-the-road Christian alternative.

Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Genre: History
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This unusual history book focuses on day-to-day life in Elizabethan England rather than big historical events (though those are mentioned as background, of course). This is by turns fascinating and tedious, depending on what topic is being discussed (some of them go on way too long). The slightly tongue-in-cheek delivery as a guidebook provides added entertainment value. If you’re interested in British history, this is worth your time (though if you listen to the audible version you should bump it up to about 1.3X as the narrator is soooo slow).

Title: The Classic Slave Narratives
Authors: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Price, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs
Genre: Slavery Autobiographies
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Anyone who is tempted to buy into the odious “slavery was a largely benevolent institution” lie (which, for some reason, I have heard floating around lately) needs to read firsthand accounts by enslaved people. This volume contains four of the classics. It is not easy to read about the brutal, hypocritical inhumanity of slave-owners (and their enablers in the North), but those who do not learn from history…

Slowly Unfolding Sci-Fi

Title: Skyward Inn
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Publication Date: 3/16/21 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book grew on me. Our protagonists (Jem and her son, Fosse) both come across as continually sullen and petty, a pet peeve of mine. I give the son a pass because he appears to have some sort of autism spectrum issues, but Jem is just annoyingly sulky, whiney, and contrarian for most of the book. This character type annoys me so much that I almost quit about a quarter of the way through, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

The worldbuilding and slowly dawning realization of what is really going on make this a fascinating book. I can’t say too much without ruining the joy of discovery, but here’s the very basic setting: Some sort of interstellar gate has allowed humans to travel to another resource-rich planet, Qita, which they quickly gain control of due to the passivity of its monocultural inhabitants. Most of our story is set in a part of earth that has chosen to largely withdraw from modern society (very little technology, no space travel, etc.). There, Jem and her Qitan partner run the Skyward Inn, serving a Qitan brew that allows people to experience and share intense memories. The slowly unfolding story explores themes of identity, relationship, memory, and more.

The narration takes some getting used to as it jumps between first, second, and third person. Normally, I’d find this obnoxiously pretentious, but it makes sense in the overall framework of the book. Overall, if you don’t mind thoughtful, low-action sci-fi, this is definitely worth your time.

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Flat Franchise Fiction

The last three free eARC books I received from NetGalley were franchise fiction, and I’ll be reviewing two of those today. No one expects great literary genius from shared-world, movie spinoff sci-fi, but I was hoping for a little better than what I got. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free copy via NetGalley (this in no way affects the content of the reviews as we shall see).

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the King Episode 1 by [Ira Madison III, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne, Tananarive Due]

Title: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King
Authors: Ira Madison III, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 183? (not quite sure…numbering in the eARC was squiffy)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The episodic plot of this book would make a decent movie or TV series. There’s plenty of action, intrigue, brooding, magic-science… all the usual superhero stuff. I would pay to watch that movie.

However, what works in a movie, cartoon, or comic book does not necessarily work in a novel. Much of the writing was stilted and clunky (to say nothing of uneven since different “episodes” were written by different authors working singly or in pairs). To be charitable I’ll assume the problem lies in the genre rather than the authors’ writing talent…I have tried a couple other (DC) superhero novels in the past and found their writing similarly awkward. Perhaps superhero stories need to be told in a visual medium?

Title: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Authors: Too many to list
Genre: Star Wars Fanfiction Short Stories
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Any short story collection is a mixed bag, and the mixture in this collection tends toward the “meh.” You can only read so many stories about the evacuation of Echo Base, Vader force-choking an incompetent, or the chaos caused by Lando’s announcement that the Empire has taken over Cloud City before they all start blending together.

To me, the more memorable stories focused on what main characters were doing/thinking when off-camera. Perhaps some of the ones from the “everyman”/”everystormtrooper” point of view would have stood out if there hadn’t been so many of them (and let’s not forget the compulsive need to check the “woke” box by having all 3 or 4 instances of (non-explicit) sex/romance be LGBTQ). Overall, if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you’ll probably enjoy at least some of this collection, but (as with many thematic anthologies) you should only read a story or two at a time to keep the “didn’t I just read this?” feeling at bay.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.

Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Multiverse Edition

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Rating: 3 of 5

This book explores the idea of the infinite multiverse where every decision made generates a new alternate universe. What would happen if you were able to travel to alternate universes where an alternate you made different major life choices? It’s sort of an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario, but with a magical sciencey box instead of Clarence the junior angel.

Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I don’t want to give away any major spoilers. Suffice it to say that interaction with alternate universes, alternate selves, and alternate loved ones gets pretty convoluted. Some of the characterization is a bit flat and chichéd, and our main character makes some pretty dumb decisions for a world-class physicist, but if you’re really into the idea of an infinite multiverse (and aren’t put off by moderate amounts of profanity, drugs, semi-explicit sex, and gory violence), you’ll probably enjoy this book as fairly well-written, trippy sci-fi.

Personally, while I admired a lot of the plotting, this wasn’t my favorite. To me, the whole concept of every choice generating one or more alternate universes with alternate yous renders moot the very idea of a plot…why is the person who we are following any more the “real” person than one of the infinite alternates spawned by every choice made? To be fair, the book does acknowledge and incorporate this dilemma to a degree, but for me it kind of kills the joy of stories. Sure, the version I read ended this way, but it also ended in an infinite number of other ways none of which is more true than any other. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, but this kind of multiverse fiction just doesn’t work for me (I had similar issues with Michael Crichton’s Timeline).

WH40K Smorgasbord

Title: Forges of Mars Omnibus
Author: Graham McNeill
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40K)
Pages: 944
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Over the last couple years, the Warhammer 40,000 books have become my go-to series when I’m in the mood for escapist sci-fi. There’s very little complexity in characterization or plot, but it can be a nice violent grimdark read.

*Heresy Alert* I’m not a big fan of loyalist space marines. Their character development pretty much begins and ends with [Role in their squad] + [“FOR THE EMPEROR!!!”], so I tend to gravitate toward books based on other character types. This particular omnibus was a lot of fun in that regard. As you you would expect from the title, the main story revolves around the tech priests of Mars. The three book arc (I wouldn’t recommend reading the books separately) follows an exploratory mission led by an arch-magos of the cult mechanicus. Along for the ride are a rogue trader and his crew, Cadian guardsmen, skitarii, titans, Black Templar space marines, and more. Weave in an eldar storyline and you get a lot of interesting interaction between groups that usually go their own way.

This is definitely worth a read if you are into the WH40K universe and want to explore something other than space marines. I almost gave it 4 stars (an unprecedented rating from me for a WH40K book), but the author was so obviously fishing for a sequel with the way he ended the third book (and even more so in the follow-up novella) that I docked it half a star: 3.5 stars for competent escapist sci-fi that manages a bit more character development than usual.

 

A Handful of Mini-Reviews

Working from home plus “attending” an online conference (T4G20) kept me busy all of last week, but it’s time for a few mini-reviews to help catch up with what I’ve read (presented in order read):

The Bondage of the Will: Luther, Martin, Packer, J. I., Johnston ...Title: The Bondage of the Will
Author: Martin Luther
Translators: J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
Genre: Classic Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

Martin Luther’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’s The Freedom of the Will is a classic of Protestant theology. It demonstrates that a belief in “total depravity” and “saved by grace alone through faith alone” are the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

While I tend to agree with most of Luther’s conclusions, I felt like his arguments were a mixture of straw man, ad hominem, and sound exegesis. Stylistically he comes off as a bully who swings back and forth between bombast and smug sarcasm. I admire some things about Luther, but his polemical writings could have used a dose of Christian charity.

Title: Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: John Sturrock
Genre: French Classic
Pages: 496
Rating: 3 of 5

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really understand the attraction of this book. A large part of the “action” of the story (when Hugo isn’t off on one of his rabbit trails or swooning over Gothic architecture) is two skeezy older men (one of them a supposedly celibate priest and the other engaged) lusting after and attempting to seduce/rape a teenager, and/or purge their obsession with her.

Quasimodo the deaf, deformed rage monster is tragic and memorable in his devotion to Esmeralda, but for me it wasn’t enough to balance the boring digressions and lecherous behavior that dominated the story.

The Plague: Camus Albert: Amazon.com: BooksTitle: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Stuart Gilbert
Genre: French Modern Classic
Pages: 278
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of a modern city quarantined during an outbreak of plague had been lurking on my mental “I should read that someday” list, and this seemed like an appropriate time (or is it an inappropriate time?) to give it a shot. I have to say, Camus has a pretty good grasp on the dark and depressing side of human nature. While the plague in his book is far more deadly than COVID-19, there were some interesting parallels to what is currently playing out around the world.

As a pastor, I found the priest’s second sermon in the book fascinating. It’s basically an appeal to acknowledge the sovereignty and goodness of God in all circumstances (unfortunately followed up by a nonsensical application of rejecting the care of doctors).

Overall, the book was a depressing, largely hopeless slog, which is probably not surprising given its author and subject matter.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtTitle: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [Audiobook]
Author: Mark Twain
Narrator: Nick Offerman
Genre: American Classic Satire
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ron Swanson (I mean, Nick Offerman) is the perfect narrator for this classic tale of a practical, no-nonsense factory boss transported to the court of King Arthur. The Yankee has a bit more braggadocio and showmanship than Ron Swanson, but in their intensely practical outlook and ingenuity they’re the same.

Twain’s biting satire brutally (but humorously) mocks courtly medieval romances along with the concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, state religion, and more. It can be mean-spirited and overly cynical at times, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking at the same time…and Offerman’s narration will delight fans of Parks and Recreation (it bumped it up from a 4 to a 4.5 for me).

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe Book 3) by [Neal Shusterman]Title: The Toll
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi with YA vibes
Pages: 637
Rating: 3 of 5

I have mixed feelings about this final book in the series. The convoluted political and religious corruption and intrigue from the previous books escalate and play out in a satisfactory way. A few plot points seemed to come out of left field, but that may have been my own current crop of distractions causing me to miss things rather than any plotting problems by the author.

What really bugged me was that I felt like the series as a whole and this book in particular got more and more overtly preachy in favor of ideas like consequentialist/situation ethics, non-binary gender ideology, and euthanasia. Overall, an interesting series from a philosophical viewpoint quite different from my own that suffers a bit from preachiness.

Benevolent Big Brother

Title: Thunderhead
(Arc of a Scythe: Book 2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-Fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 512
Rating: 4 of 5

*WARNING: There may be mild spoilers for the first book*

This series continues to impress, for the most part. In this installment we get to find out a lot more about the Thunderhead, the benevolent, “nearly all-powerful” AI that watches over humanity (except for anything to do with the Scythedom). Our two protagonists continue in their arcs: Citra now a full-fledged junior scythe and champion of the “old guard” and Rowan a vigilante hunting down scythes who he deems unworthy. We also get a new protagonist who is a protege of the Thunderhead and whose storyline dips into several subcultures mentioned in the first book.

There was a hint of “middle book syndrome” here, but nothing too bad. A few parts seemed to drag slightly since the overall novelty of the world is worn off a little, and the frenetic burst of action at the end didn’t resolve as fully as the first book did.Overall, it was still an excellent book with plenty of intrigue and interesting speculation.

On a personal theological/philosophical note, I am annoyed by the (not uncommon) sci-fi trope that scientific progress completely eliminates the need for religion/Christianity, and whatever faiths are left are full of hateful luddites and nut-jobs (at best). Only in one brief paragraph does anyone seriously wonder what comes after (permanent) death. I find it hard to believe that the whole world has simply decided that immortal souls don’t exist or if they do that it’s not worth thinking about.