Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Sovereign (Nemesis #2), by April Daniels

book cover I liked Dreadnought, the first book in the Nemesis series. It was fresh, with a sympathetic character that went through some major changes in life. The team was interesting, the villain, too. A bit too female centered, a bit naive, but hey: it's about a teenage transgender superhero. What could I have expected? It says something about the book that I read the next one in the series.

Unfortunately, I almost disliked Sovereign. The discussions about weird sexuality (without actual sex scenes) and the characters that are connected to transgender issues increased, the character development stalled, some people simply disappeared (Danny's parents say two phrases in total in one appearance), the villain's motivation is stupid, the heroics are random and the drama and tension that should have kept a reader to the edge of the seat, curious to see what will happen next, are almost non existent. When people die, the heroes kind of shrug it off: "oh, we killed some people. Sucks!" Not an actual quote, but it felt like this. And the only reason why they find out about the villainous plan is because the head vil is literally inviting Danielle to his mansion to explain said plan. Some things happen just because the story couldn't go on without them, and it's painfully obvious. I understand April Daniels may have identified too much with her characters and is not eager to torture them, but the book felt like a kiddie show in written form.

I finished the book, but I won't be interested in the future of the series. And it's too bad. I felt that this concept was going places.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Winter Tide and The Litany of Earth (The Innsmouth Legacy #1), by Ruthanna Emrys

book cover Ruthana Emrys wrote the short story The Litany of Earth as a reinterpretation of Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth, where the people of Innsmouth were actually the victims of persecution from the government. Extending the story to the first book in a trilogy, Winter Tide acts as a sequel to the Lovecraft short, telling the story of some of the few people of the water working with the US government to investigate the misuse of their magical rituals.

If in Shadow over Innsmouth, the horrible fish people were being righteously rounded up by the authorities and interned into camps, their town and traditions forcibly destroyed, in this book they are the victims of persecution, a subspecies of humans that just wants to be left alone. Their magical rituals are more about communion than power, but some of them can be terribly misused, like the body swap technique. This gives the author opportunity to add to the story the Yith, ancient race of mind travelers who have the only concern to archive the experiences of sapient beings before they go extinct - with the added horror that they face any extinction event themselves by mass swapping into another civilization, leaving those poor souls displaced in unfamiliar bodies and facing certain doom - depicted by Lovecraft in The Shadow Out of Time, as well as hint of a body swap misused as means of trying to achieve immortality, as told by Lovecraft in The Thing on the Doorstep. So when one of the last females of the water people is asked to help by an FBI agent, she decides to put aside her distrust and horror and help the ones who murdered her people in the purpose of at least preserving her race's reputation and preventing the use of their magical arts in the terrible world wars the air people were waging.

You have to admit when you think Lovecraft, you don't often imagine a gay female author writing about the importance of diversity, community and love, yet this is what Winter Tide is. And it has a quintessentially female style of writing, where the lead character helps the people she should normally hate in order to bring peace, she solves problems by bringing people together and treating them with familial love and encouraging their differences rather than using violence. Her purposes are selfless and she wields power not as a sword, but as shelter.

While the style felt a little too formal and the pace was rather slow at the beginning, I found myself wanting more by the end of the book. It felt like a strange melange of Lovecraftian lore, notoriously difficult to bring to a modern form - yet Emrys did it effortlessly - and a style of writing that brought it back to a more ancient feel, thus relating modern themes in a work that still tastes like Lovecraft. The second book in the series, Deep Roots, just came out and I intend to read it as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1), by April Daniels

book cover I am sure I only heard of this book because of the agenda of some of the sites I visit, but I do not regret reading it. Dreadnought is about a teenage boy obsessed with comic book heros who secretly wants to be a girl. When he gets his wish (plus some awesome superpowers) he has to deal with the lack of understanding from parents and people he thought of as friends. At first I thought "Oh, no, I fell for it again. It's going to suck! It's going to be Sense8 on paper. I am going to read the entire book about how bad cis-people are". I am glad that it wasn't so, so before you automatically dismiss the book, think again.

While the main character is transgender, this only adds some complexity to it, without polluting the main thread of the story, which is a typical teenage superhero saves the world kind of thing. The way the world is described reminds me a bit of Wild Cards and maybe also some of those Union Dues books about powered people who get screwed over by politics and unions that were so popular on Escape Pod: metahumans are common, some of more power than others, heroes have leagues and are commonly recruited (and financed) based on their abilities, bad ones always try to take over the world while a majority of them are doing whatever they can with what nature gave them. The issues the main character has revolve mostly on how her bully of a father is messing her life after the transformation. Her parents want "their son back" and try to "fix" what happened to her. Meanwhile she is hunting for the biggest supervillain there is, trying to deal with her asshole family, handling the pressure from superhero adults who try to tell her what to do before explaining anything and ... do homework for school.

This is not a masterpiece, mind you. I enjoyed the book, which is rather short and pretty naive, because I actually thought the story was interesting, however it is mostly typical YA crap with a fresh perspective. A second book in the series from April Daniels is already out, Sovereign, and I intend to read it as well. I hope it's at least as good as Dreadnought. I was kind of hoping that it would be a different hero in each book, but it's the same in each. If you like that kind of diversity between viewpoints, I really recommend you read the Wild Cards series. It's huge, though.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3), by Brandon Sanderson

book cover Just after finishing some mediocre books from Brandon Sanderson I started with Oathbringer, as if to remind me why I like this author so much. As Lift would say, the book is awesome! It's not without its flaws, but it is a mammoth in size, great in quality, epic in scope.

The third book in The Stormlight Archive, ambitiously planned as a ten book series, Oathbringer focuses more on Dalinar Kholin rather than Kaladin, who one might think was the main character of the series. Yet it also expands the characters already introduced and brings even more. There are histories that explain what is going on: the Voidbringers are back, another Desolation has begun, Parshendi will become agents of chaotic destruction under the control of mighty Odium, their god, who wants nothing more than to bring the end of the world, and the only hope comes from Heralds, Knights Radiant and people united against their common foe. But is that what happens? Who are the Voidbringers, really? Why are parshmen awakening, but instead of agents of destruction most behave like normal people who have just woken up from stupor? Are the Radiants united under the same purpose? Are they even the good guys? Where are the Heralds and who among them are still sane? Who's god is Odium and what does he really want? And when spren become corrupted by one god or another, what happens when you bond one? All these questions make for not only a good exciting read, but an intelligent one, as well. I felt the adventurous reader, the engineer and scholar in me all enjoy the book.

As for the bad part, the book is, as were the others in the series, quite large. Maintaining pace, or indeed even pretending there is one for the entire book, is impossible. Some parts are bound to bore, while others to annoy when perspective inevitably switches away from them. Sanderson paints each character as the hero of their own story, creating understanding and compassion for almost all and bringing them up and down as the story progresses, and while this is a worthy goal and a mark of a good writer, it takes a toll on the reader who would rather just root for the good guys. Probably worse of all, the next book in the series is optimistically planned for 2020, which means another two years of yearning for the mere continuation of the story. It is a book that feels more wide than it is long and waiting for fifteen years for the series to end so one can read it all it is not manageable either. So yeah, my biggest complaint with Oathbringer is that it is too good.

I loved the Reckoners series and Elantris. Funny enough the Mistborn series that Sanderson is known for threw me away and some of the recent attempts like Legion felt just bad. Yet The Stormlight Archive is a series I can get behind and invest in its characters and enjoy. Oathbringer is just a part of it, but a good part. Bring on the fourth shard of the story, Brandon! I need to unite them all!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Americans ends

DVD cover for the fifth season Well, it ended a while ago, but I've just now got around to watching the last episodes from the sixth and last season of The Americans. It was a very interesting concept, following around two Russian spies that pretend to be a normal two kid and a picket fence couple while doing missions for the KGB on American soil. Luckily, it was set during the height of the Cold War, not now, so none of that fake news Twitter bull.

It was well played, too: Mathew Rhys and Noah Emmerich are both great as the Russian male agent and the unknowing FBI agent who moves right next door on one of faith's whims. However, it was Keri Russell who shone throughout the sometimes uneven run of the show. I mean, people knew her from Felicity, where she was a cute cheerful university student, but in this show she is seductive when she needs to get someone's trust, ruthless and unstoppable when she needs someone dead, unwaveringly loyal to her home country and hard as a rock underneath her ever changing appearance and disguises.

You can't run a show for six seasons and not evolve your characters (well, a lot of shitty shows do that), but The Americans excels in making the main characters have to face not only the consequences of their missions, but also the consequences of normal people living their lives. If Nadiejda the spy grows throughout the show, so must Elizabeth the wife and mother. I especially admired the twists and turns of Philip's moral qualms and how he wanted to reconcile his different personas while Elizabeth chose splintering apart as her way to cope.

Now, not all is well with this show. There were seasons when nothing interesting was actually happening. Henry's character never evolved away from a stupid kid that asks no questions and is missing from the series for entire seasons, while his sister not only was figuring it out, but was also recruited as a "second generation" agent. Admittedly, Holly Taylor was annoying as hell in that role, but she didn't write her character's script. I also suspect that people got turned away from the show by the brilliant portrayal of a loyal Russian agent by Keri Russell. She was too hard, too Russian, too human for comfort. I can only admire both her and the show developers for going all the way in with her character.

All in all, I have mostly good things to say about the show and if you have not watched it, I highly recommend it. It seems to me that this show has enough followers to warrant a full feature film production in which the actors could shine in a one-off mission spy movie. I am also curious on what Keri Russell will do other than a rumored Star Wars appearance that I believe is a poor choice for someone who shone so brightly in a real role.

About the ending... it actually ends. It's not one of those shows that get cancelled without any preparation, leaving everything in limbo. However it is also one of those endings that is generic enough for them to have planned it seasons ago. We see some of the consequences spell out, but there is not enough time to really understand where it all leads to. It was nice to see the reactions of the characters to the sudden end, but it was certainly not enough to make a statement about the real outcome of their actions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Legion books, by Brandon Sanderson

book cover Brandon Sanderson wrote two short books about the Legion character, which is different from the Legion character from the Marvel comics and TV series. It is basically about a guy who hallucinates other people around him, specialists that help him solve "cases". People are not sure in what box to put him. Is he schizophrenic, is he multiple personality disorder, something else? It doesn't really matter, since he is functional and (with the help of his imagined personalities) brilliant.

Yet, while the character can be compelling, the stories are rather boring. The joking punny positivism of Sanderson's characters is barely there, while the setup is that of classic detective stories. There is no fantasy like in Cosmere, nor are there interesting ideas that blow your mind. Just short average books about a quirky detective. It can't get less original than that, I believe.

Bottom line: without some serious redesign of the concept, I doubt Legion is a character that warrants further exploration.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo

book cover The Grisha trilogy is, as the name implies, a series of three books that comprise the entirety of a story about a young orphan girl and her childhood friend growing up to find they have powers and need to battle evil that only they can vanquish. Yes, it's typical young adult stuff.

The refreshing bit about this series is the Slavic flavor that permeates the story. The names are Slavic, the legends and history are similar to the ones around Russia, and if you read not the books, but the short stories, you get that nice hopeful dread that one can find in old Russian legends: things can be nice, but most of the time you can only hope for instructional and survivable.

That leaves me at an impasse. I liked the books, but compared to the expectations created by the short stories they are pretty crap. I mean, you get that Twilighty romantic triangle thing (it's more of a square, really), and so much potential from characters that are tortured by a rough childhood is just wasted on pointless romance dancing around. The first book is clearly the best, but then Leigh Bardugo falters and writes the rest of the story more and more traditional... not to the Russian folklore, but to Hollywood bullshit. The evil guy gets more and more evil, for no actual reason, the characters get more and more righteous, for no reason other than being juxtaposed against the evil guy, secondary characters get killed off randomly, with no gain from the effort made in defining them, while primary characters get more and more entangled, again, for no good reason. The worst offence, in my view, is that the author bothered to create this Slavic world of impoverished peasants fighting neverending wars with neighboring countries, only to basically end it all with a happy ending. In order to bring the story to a popular finale, she massacred an entire universe, not unlike the villain of the series.

Bottom line: an interesting and easy to read young adult story that unfortunately ends much worse than it had begun. Instead of continuing to explore the truly adult themes of loss, betrayal, learning from mistakes, surviving trauma, etc, it caves in to the easy romantic and tired idea of light versus dark, losing all other color in the process.

Monday, July 02, 2018

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

book cover Ed Yong's style is a little bit over narrated, like those TV documentaries that start with some guy walking down the street while they present who he is and what he does. That's the only real issue I had with this book, other than a few groan inducing puns. Besides that, the book is not only extremely interesting, but also contains a multitude (OK, I like puns) of well crafted insights into the biological world all around us.

I Contain Multitudes explains how animal and plant life has evolved from a previous state in which microbes were everywhere and everything. Every adaptation since then has taken them into account and forced them to adapt in turn. Microbes, as explained by the book, are not a bunch of criminals hell bent on causing disease, but a complex ecosystem that overshadows the macrobiome, with complex adaptations in a matter of days.

A lot of eye opening ideas in the book. That disease is more often caused by an imbalance in a community of different microbes, not by one opportunistic infection. The old paradigm of "kill'em all" is no longer valid, as it just clears way for other microbes to take over the vacated real estate. The way selected cultures of microbes can function as a living drug for all kinds of afflictions, from bowel problems to mental issues, from tree diseases to those transmissible by insect bites, is shockingly powerful. But there is more, the most pervasive being that we cohabitate a world of bacteria and viruses that are as part of our identity and function as any other organ. Indiscriminately killing everything microscopic is then akin to cutting off your limb, just because you feel like it.

It is a book I can't recommend enough. Anyone even remotely interested in medicine should consider it as a must read. Anyone interested in their own health should read it. In fact, I can't imagine a single person that shouldn't read it. Check out the book's page on Ed Yong's web site for more information, videos and articles.