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.

Death in a Time of Immortality

Title: Scythe
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 1)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 464
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I saw several rave reviews for this book and somewhat reluctantly decided to give it a shot. The dystopian elements appealed to me, but I am not a fan of YA fiction. While there are a few YA vibes (teenage protagonists, teenage anger/petulance, star-crossed romantic tension) it wasn’t overdone, believably fit the situation, and avoided what I consider to be the two worst YA tropes: all adults are idiots & love triangles.

In the future death has been eliminated, and a benevolent AI (the Cloud having gained sentience) oversees society in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for all. The population is kept under control by the order of Scythes who are completely above the law (“separation of Scythe and state”) and “glean” (kill) a certain number of people per year. The story follows two high-schoolers chosen as Scythe apprentices.

As you would expect, this book delves into some pretty disturbing subject matter. Each scythe has their own approach to gleaning, and the story deals with a deep ideological divide within the “scythedom.” As I’ve said before in books that feature excellent world-building: I don’t want to say much more since learning more and more about the world as the plot unfolds (and in the journal entries that begin most chapters) is half the fun. I highly recommend this book as a thought-provoking, grim utopia/dystopia.

On a personal philosophical/theological note, I find it interesting that many people (not just authors) seem incapable of imagining immortality and universal peace without assuming stagnation, boredom, and/or something sinister behind the scenes. Books like this seem to have an underlying assumption that it is impossible to be truly happy/fulfilled without the presence of death and/or suffering. On the one hand, I agree that living in a world riven by death and suffering is an essential part of making us who we are meant to be…on the other hand, I believe that there is coming a time when death and suffering are gone forever and that will not be a time of stagnation but of joy and creativity able to find their fullest expression without hindrance (cf. Romans 8:18-28).

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.

Javert + Batman + Insanity

Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter (Primarchs Book 12) by [Haley, Guy]Title: Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter
(The Horus Heresy: Primarchs Book 12)
Author: Guy Haley
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40k universe)
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5

A couple years ago I reviewed the Night Lords Trilogy as decent dark, uber-violent, escapist sci-fi. This book provides a prequel of sorts and isn’t half bad for a shared-world-based-on-tabletop-gaming sort of book. In it, we get to know the primarch/gene-father of the VIII Legion both before and after his fall into the service of Chaos. He combines the implacable “justice” of Les Miserables’ Javert with the terror-inspiring vigilantism of Batman and a great big dose of prescience-induced insanity.

The story is fragmented into a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and angry rants against the Emperor of Mankind. Some of the transitions can be a bit confusing, but given Curze’s insanity, I think the overall effect works quite nicely.

The plot features the usual Warhammer amount of guts, gore, and grossness (and then some since our protagonist is one of the “bad guys”). I was really hoping for a good chunk of the story to be about the primarch’s early dark vigilante days on Nostromo, but the author was more interested in exploring his damaged psyche and events subsequent to the Horus Heresy.

This isn’t a good starting point if you’re new to the series as it assumes you have a basic working knowledge of the universe and some of its major events. However, if you’re into the Warhammer 40K books in general and chaos space marines in particular, this is worth reading.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

The Zealot & The Sociopath

Title: Vicious
(Villains – Book 1)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 365
Rating: 4 of 5

If you enjoy antihero or supervillain-as-protagonist stories, this book is a must read! I won’t comment much on the plot because V. E. Schwab presents the story in a non-linear manner that slowly reveals what is going on, and that slow revelation is half the fun. Suffice it to say that this occurs in a world that contains people with X-Men-like powers (though not from mutation).

Both of our main characters are, as the title states, vicious in their own way. Neither is particularly sympathetic, but their ambition and rivalry make for a great story (and one of them has a little bit more of a “you should be cheering for this one” vibe).

Occasionally I wondered “why don’t they just use their power to [fill in the blank] and solve this problem right now?” but I think that’s a common plot difficulty with any story involving overpowered supers. If you can do the suspend-disbelief-and-ignore-a-few-plot-holes to enjoy a superhero movie, this is a lot of fun. The ending was satisfactory and tied up enough loose ends to be considered stand-alone while allowing for future stories in the same world with at least some of the same characters.

Vengeful (Villains Book 2) by [Schwab, V. E.]Title: Vengeful
(Villains – Book 2)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 478
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of which…this was an okay followup to Vicious. Throw a couple more nasty EO’s into the mix, make last time’s “you should be cheering for this one” sociopath even less sympathetic, give a lot more background on last time’s bad guy (worse guy?), end on an even bigger bang than last time, and you have this book.

The events of the story flows naturally out of what happened in the first book and add some interesting elements and characters. However, it is a bit harder to discern a central plot, and the wrap-up leaves quite a few loose ends. It is clearly intended as a setup for one or more sequels, and I personally find that annoying. I didn’t dislike the book as a whole, but the scattery plot, increasingly psychopathic characters, and partially unresolved ending meant it didn’t wow me like the first one.

Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.

Bob the AI

Title: We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
(Bobiverse: Volume 1)
Author: Dennis E. Taylor
Genre: AI/Space Exploration Sci-Fi
Pages: 308
Rating: 4 of 5

The feel of this book reminds me of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but with slightly less believable science, a lot less profanity and a lot more hating on Christians. All religious people in the book are caricatured as fanatical proponents (or cowed followers) of anti-intellectual dominion theology with atheism being apparently the only viable opposing viewpoint. Shallow, broad-brush characterization of viewpoints other than the protagonist’s/author’s is a fairly pervasive element, but if you can look past that it’s a pretty fun book.

Our geeky, sarcastic protagonist (Bob) dies, having just signed a contract with a cryonics corporation. He wakes up 117 years later as an AI copy of “original Bob’s” brain, that is made into a self-replicating space probe. The storyline fragments as we get more Bobs, each with his own variations in personality and interests. Plot threads include survival, exploration, politics, warfare, terraforming, social engineering, etc.

I listened to the Audible edition read by Ray Porter. Some of his accents and voices were a bit off when they were supposed to represent other nationalities or TV/movie characters (e.g. his Admiral Ackbar sounded more like Sean Connery at first), but overall his narration gave each of the Bobs their own personality and brought out the frequent humor/irony/sarcasm without overplaying it.

If you like your stories to have a tight plot and/or are easily offended, you should probably give this a miss. If that doesn’t describe you, this book is a fun semi-scientific look at some possible challenges and discoveries in the areas of AI and space exploration.

Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.