Two book reviewlets

Two days ago I reviewed Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From the Well, a book that I enjoyed an awful goddamned lot, and I mentioned in the post that due to a screw-up where I ordered the sequel without realizing it was a sequel, I had it on hand already and would be going directly into it. Well, I burned through The Suffering almost as fast as I finished Well, and while I’m not quite jumping up and down and shouting read this read this read this the way was with the first one, it’s definitely still a good read. Call it four and a half stars to the first book’s five; the POV character moves from the ghost to the boy she is (newly) possessing, and the two of them have basically evolved into a sort of supernatural, psychic version of The Punisher, seeking out and messily taking apart murderers of the innocent. The majority of the book takes place in Aokigahara Woods, Japan’s “suicide forest,” and it absolutely continues the original book’s excellent level of creepiness, but I really loved the narration style that the ghost had in the first book and the tone shifts a little from supernatural vengeance ghost to something that, possibly not intentionally, scans a trifle more superhero-ey, and mostly because of those two things it’s not quite the triumph the first book was. Definitely read Well, and allow your reaction to that one to determine if you pick this one up. I suspect most folks will want to read both.


Jon Richter’s oddly-named Auxiliary: London 2039 is a book and not a bullet hell video game shooter from the late 1990s, and it’s another book that I was sent for free, on the condition that I review it for the site.

Let me boil this down for you in the quickest way I know how: are you interested in reading a book that features rape robots? If so, please continue. If not, read no further, and go nowhere near this book.

This was a four-star or so read until the last 25 pages or so, and I have never seen a book more effectively shoot itself in the dick before than this one does. I’ve got it at two stars on Goodreads right now, and I genuinely might bump it down to one. Because this book starts off interesting– a sort of Lock Inesque gritty detective story set in a near future that is probably a little bit too close to now to be realistic (hi, Skylights!) that is as much science fiction as it is a murder mystery. The book goes a little bit off the rails in chapter three, where the following events happen:

  • Our hard-boiled detective hero, Dremmler, creeps on a woman on the train. He is wearing smartglasses called Spex, which inform him of the woman’s name, her age, that she is bisexual, currently single, and that she has no criminal convictions. He “discerns”– the actual verb used– her “ample” breasts. He gets an erection. On the train. While sitting across from this woman.
  • He goes home, where he is greeted by his live-in maidbot, who is wearing a French maid’s outfit. She offers him a beer, which he accepts, offers to pour the beer, which he rudely declines, then offers him a blow job. He accepts that as well. So I guess she’s a fuckbot in addition to a maidbot.
  • That is the entire chapter. It is three pages long.

We know entirely too much about Dremmler’s erections throughout this book, and there is at least one place where another character decides to sleep with him for no reason at all that I can discern. But the mystery, which involves a pervasive, all-knowing AI and a prosthetic arm that murders someone independent of the desires of the person owning the arm, was interesting enough that I kept going. Then there’s a chapter where Dremmler has a nightmare that he is actually someone else who is actually basically roleplaying Dremmler in a simulation (shades of Ready Player One,) and that person actually uses the word “misogynist” to describe Dremmler before dying messily and, okay, I guess that was just a nightmare after all, and Dremmler is real? Sure, OK–

And then in the last 25 pages the Bad Guys literally use the impending gang-rape of Dremmler’s ex-wife, a woman responsible for the death of his child, by a bunch of misshapen sex bots (the first robot to do the raping has a “foot-long” penis and a hammerhead shark’s head) as a means of extracting information from Dremmler, and then there’s an enormous, AI drone-driven massacre of “thousands” of people, and then the book ends with either a cliffhanger or Dremmler’s actual death at the hands of the AI.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

I did not like this book; I was liking this book with some reservations (there’s something hinky going on with almost every female character in the book, a few too many of which are described as Asian in a way that feels weirdly fetishistic to me, and then there’s the erections) up until the rape bots, and if I hadn’t agreed to review this in return for the copy that would have been the end of it, the book nearly being finished be damned. I hate to say “this is not a good book and you should not read it” about something somebody sent me for free, but … this is not a good book, and you should not read it.

On the canon

Scalzi had– unwillingly, it must be pointed out– some interesting things to say today regarding the existence of a capital-C Canon as it relates to science fiction and fantasy. This was brought on by George R.R. Martin embarrassing himself and everyone else at the Hugo awards a week (? two? Time has no meaning) ago.

For the most part, I agree with him. There is no Canon, at least not of the capital-C variety, and it’s questionable at best about whether there ever was one. And a lot of what certain types of people think might be part of that Canon are books I probably haven’t read. I have never done anything but bounce off of Heinlein, for example. I don’t mind Starship Troopers but I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything else of his. I’ve read my share of Asimov but nothing I care to recommend to anyone. I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and Ursula le Guin; I can’t tell you a damn thing about any of them. No Bradbury or Silverberg, at all.

Honestly, I’ve read very little of the sci-fi Canon. I’m more widely read in fantasy, as that was my obsession as a kid, but I just didn’t read a ton of sci-fi growing up and most of what I’ve read as an adult has been much more modern.

So here’s the question: I don’t think there is a real Canon– there’s no work or set of works that someone having read or not read them would cause me to cast aspersions on their spec fiction bona fides– but what if there was?

In other words, if someone came up to me right now and wanted me to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy that they needed to read, what might be on that list?

And that’s an interesting question. These will be in no particular order and I will absolutely forget some important books, so don’t take this as– heh– an authoritative list of canonical books. Let’s just say I’m starting a conversation and go from there.

  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are probably as close as I’ll ever be willing to get to books that I insist any fan of fantasy literature must read, if only because that way you get it when people are trying to subvert them.
  • Dune. You can skip every single other Dune book other than the first one, but you should read Dune.
  • The Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling is cancelled, but there’s an entire generation of folks out there for whom these books were foundational and just because we’ve decided that they were magically written by no one is no reason not to read them.
  • Speaking of cancelled people, you really should read at least the first two books of the series that is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire but is known as Game of Thrones now. Read the third if you liked them. Do not read further than that.
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, the only person to win Best Novel Hugos three years in a row.
  • Read Sandman. Yeah, I know it’s a comic book. Do it anyway.
  • Frankenstein. No, seriously, read Frankenstein. Like, do it anyway even if you generally don’t care about science fiction. It’s a better book than you think it is. Seriously. Try and find an edition with the extended ending, though.
  • Read something– I don’t care what– by China Miéville. Perdido Street Station, maybe, or The City and the City.
  • I will probably catch some crap for this, but read something by Lovecraft. Yes, he is a supreme asshole. But he’s dead, so he’s not going to get any of your money and a lot of his stuff is public domain by now anyway. Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth or The Colour Out of Space, maybe. They’re short. Take a bath afterwards.
  • Orson Scott Card is a living utter asshole, but … man, Ender’s Game. Do it without spending money.
  • Watership Down. Which doesn’t have swords or orcs or spaceships in it, but does have talking bunnies and shocking violence.
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie’s most underrated book, and squarely in the realm of fantasy.
  • Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series could sub in for Heinlein, who is an obvious inspiration.
  • Read some Kameron Hurley. Really, just pick something, although if you pointed a gun at me I’d say something from her Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

And, like, I could definitely go on, and there are a ton of books that I think are magnificent but I wouldn’t necessarily put on this type of list (an example: the Expanse novels, which are brilliant but the series isn’t finished yet, and unlike ASoIaF I think you should actually read all of them) so obviously we could just keep adding things forever. But if this is a list of Where Should I Start, I feel like you could do worse than working your way through these.

What else is part of your fantasy/sci-fi canon?

(Also, I want to note, for the record, that I deliberately didn’t include Amazon affiliate links for any of these, because I feel like it would have been overkill.)

#REVIEW: Sixteenth Watch, by Myke Cole

Interesting phenomenon: I just looked at the Monthly Reads post I put up yesterday and realized that of the last fourteen books I’ve read (including A Memory of Empire, which I just started yesterday and isn’t in the pile,) all but three have featured main characters who were women. That’s certainly not something I did intentionally, although I suspect the 52 books by women of color series is skewing the numbers slightly, it doesn’t account for that level of disparity. And while I’m not going to name the specific books, several of the last half-dozen or so books I’ve read have featured MCs who consistently made terrible, horrible, no-good-very-bad decisions all the time, to the point where I noticed the trend, which was starting to get seriously on my nerves.

I’ve read one Myke Cole series in the past: the excellent Sacred Throne trilogy, which also happens to feature a female main character, but my understanding is that he’s always been primarily a military sci-fi guy, and Sixteenth Watch is a return to form. It’s another one of those books where I feel like I should just be able to state the premise and then get out of the way while you go buy it: it’s about the Coast Guard.

I’m waiting.

Wait, you’re not running. What, you don’t want to read a book about the Coast Guard?

Okay, it’s about the Coast Guard on the moon.

(Dodges the trampling horde)

The MC of this book is Admiral Jane Oliver, a lifelong Coastie (which is a word I’d never seen before, and I like it) who is sent to the America-controlled portion of the Moon to take charge of the Coast Guard’s contingent there, and along the way to train a group of soldiers in catching, breaking into and subduing enemy ships so that they can win a game show.

(That’s the “roll with it” part of the review; trust me, it makes more sense in context, which I don’t plan on explaining because this way is more fun.)

Oh, and along the way it would be cool if she was able to keep lunar border tensions between China and the US from erupting into a hot war, which would no doubt spill back down onto Earth. So this is both a book with a lot of action to it (and enough military acronyms that there’s a glossary in the back, which was absolutely necessary at several points) and a fair amount of politics as well, as Oliver both has to navigate several tense moments with the Chinese as well as keep the Navy and Marines out of her jurisdiction and off her back. Oliver is smart enough and good enough at what she does that she felt like a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of what I’ve been reading lately, but she’s not perfect and the upper brass in the book is only tentatively on her side, so there’s conflict all over the place and on all sorts of different levels.

There’s a lot made of the fact that the Coast Guard is the only branch of the military whose job is to save lives rather than fight wars, which is a really interesting perspective for the book to take, and one I’ve not seen previously in military science fiction. I already knew Cole was a good writer, but seeing him back in his wheelhouse was a really good time, and I was up way too late the other night finishing this one off.

I realized at about the 2/3 mark of the book that we actually have something called the Space Force now, and I sent Cole a tweet asking him about it:

One wonders if there will ever be any books written about the Space Force before the next president gets around to disbanding them.


3:49 PM (How the HELL is it nearly four already?) Saturday, May 2: 1,121,414 confirmed cases and 65,908 dead Americans. The world is about to pass the quarter-million dead mark.

#REVIEW: DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara

First things first:

CONTENT WARNING: While I don’t think the review itself is going to be a trigger risk, DOCILE’s back cover warns of “forthright depictions and discussions of rape and sexual abuse,” and I would add warnings for confinement and torture to that as well. Go NOWHERE NEAR THIS BOOK if that will be unhealthy for you.

As is my usual tradition, rather than beginning this by talking about the book I just read, I’ll talk about me a bit. First, I probably should have bought Docile at C2E2, as K.M. Szpara was there and I got two other autographs from authors who were literally sitting at the same table as him. In fact, I think S.L. Huang was sitting next to him. It ended up getting ordered a week or two after getting home instead, so it was a little cheaper but it’s not autographed.

Second: without getting too far into the details, my reaction to this book was probably somewhat informed by the fact that I’ve had to have a stern conversation or two with credit card companies since my mother passed away in January. The notion that at some point in the future debt might be made inheritable has a bit more salience with me right now than it might otherwise. (And, because I don’t want people reading into this too much, let me be clear that we aren’t talking about a huge amount of money here or anything– but the conversations still have to be had.)

This book is a hell of a thing, y’all. I described it on Twitter right after I finished it as the best book I’ve read this year, which, okay, it’s only April, but I’m in lockdown so I’m forty books in already– and a few hours later I kind of want to walk away from the word best but it is certainly the most interesting book I’ve read this year, and the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year, and it’s the one I most want to find three or four other people who have read it and just sit around and talk about it for a couple of hours. “Best” doesn’t ever mean the same thing to any two people, and this book definitely has some … problematic aspects? Starting with that content warning up there, so there are already a lot of people I can’t recommend this to, and I was going to save the links for later in the piece but the book has nothing to say about race, which for a book set in future America that is effectively about slavery, is at the very least a pretty substantial omission.

This is, in other words, one of those books that some people are going to hate, and I’m not going to put myself in the position of arguing with those folks; that just wasn’t my experience of the book. Your mileage will vary, of course.

At any rate: let’s get to the premise, at least. Docile is set at some unclear amount of time in the future, somewhere outside of Baltimore. Income inequality has increased to the point where there are literal trillionaires out there walking about, but the majority of people are buried in debt, which has been made legally inheritable– so each generation is finding itself in a deeper hole than the one before it. One way out is by finding someone wealthy to buy you out of your debt, becoming what’s called a Docile. A contract is signed, and Dociles have certain rights (the book isn’t a hundred percent clear about how often these rights are honored, but they aren’t treated as a joke) but it is possible to sign for a lifetime of servitude if your debt is high enough, to clear the debt of the rest of your family. Most Dociles take a drug called Dociline, which effectively erases free will in the person taking it, making them a perfect servant. Some Dociles are used for labor, and others become personal servants and/or, effectively, sex slaves. The book’s main character, Elisha, signs a lifetime contract to become a Docile at the beginning of the book, selling three million dollars’ worth of debt and also snagging a thousand dollars a month in a stipend for his family.

His Patron is Alex Bishop III, the other POV character of the book, who is the scion of the family that invented Dociline. And Elisha, whose mother was also a Docile and who is suffering lingering effects from the drug, refuses to take Dociline, which he has a right to do. Which means that Alex, who has taken him on as a house servant and sex toy, has to train/brainwash him to become a proper Docile.

There’s a lot going on.

The front cover of the book contains the words THERE IS NO CONSENT UNDER CAPITALISM right front and center where you can’t miss it, and consent is one of the many themes of the book– others include income inequality, individual free will and autonomy, personhood, and the predatory nature of capitalism itself, and the book has an awful lot to say. I don’t want to spoil a lot of the details, especially since I was utterly wrong about a twist that I spent most of the book assuming was coming and never saw, but Szpara is a hell of a writer and I blew through this 500-page book in, basically, three big gulps.

Alex is, to put it very mildly, not very nice to Elisha at first, although the relationship between the two changes radically over the course of the book– and just how real the relationship is is one of the things that the book interrogates. After the first time they have sex Elisha openly wonders to himself if he’s been raped, and do not go near this book if the frequent explicit sex scenes are going to be a problem for you.

(This is another place where the reaction to the book is going to be all over the place– I would never, in a million years, have thought of this book as erotica, but apparently there are some folks out there who are treating it like it is? And you’re going to react very differently to this book if you’re reading it to get off or because you enjoy BDSM as opposed to, say, reading it because it’s a sci-fi dystopia and that’s a thing you like. Frankly I find the idea of people reading this for titillation to be a bit creepy, or at least the idea that you’d read it for that reason and be successful. You do you, I guess, but while there aren’t any sort of stereotypical Brutal Stranger Rape Scene type of things that tend to make me put books down, nearly all of the sex in this book is, let’s say, at least squicky about consent, and there’s at least a couple of scenes where the goal is absolutely Elisha’s sexual humiliation.)

So, yeah: Docile is problematic and messy and gross and I found it utterly fascinating and I have no idea what K.M. Szpara’s next book is going to be but he can have my money right now. If you read this and you’re still interested in the book, absolutely check it out, because I want people to talk to about it, but if you feel like it’s not for you I’d pay close attention to that feeling and take it seriously. I’m glad I read it, and it’s going to stick with me for a while, but it is definitely not for everyone.


12:31 PM, Friday, April 10: 473,073 confirmed cases, 17,036 American dead.

#REVIEW: THE CITY WE BECAME, by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve only been to New York once. I was living in Chicago at the time, so it was probably fourteen or fifteen years ago now, and I was only there for a few days. I went to visit a girl, and I honestly wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lot of sightseeing with the limited amount of time we had, which I think disappointed her a little bit. She lived in Battery Park City, which is on the extreme southern tip of Manhattan (you could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from not far away from her apartment) and other than the travel needed to get to Manhattan from whatever airport I arrived in, I didn’t really see any of the other boroughs. We went to Central Park, visiting the Zoo and finding the apartment building and the church from Ghostbusters, so you can tell whose priorities were driving the few places we did visit. If I were to identify myself with a city it would still be Chicago, despite the fact that I’ve now been away from the city for longer than I lived there.

The City We Became is, in a lot of ways, Not for Me. Jemisin has described the book repeatedly as a love letter to New York City, and as someone who doesn’t know the city I don’t know that I was missing anything, necessarily, but I suspect New Yorkers will get more out of the book than I might have. Except maybe for Staten Islanders. I would love to know what people from Staten Island think of this book, actually. It will be fascinating to see if this book is greeted with the near-universal acclaim that her previous work and particularly her Broken Earth trilogy received; if you’re not familiar with her, you should be: she is the only author ever to receive the Best Novel Hugo award three years in a row, and she is, hands down, the single most important author working in science fiction and fantasy today. And this, while still certainly fantasy, is very different tonally and structurally from her previous work, to the point where I’m not entirely certain I’d have pegged it as a Jemisin book if I didn’t know she’d written it.

None of that, mind you, is a complaint. The City We Became is the first book of a new trilogy and the basic storyline is simple enough that you can cover it in a sentence: New York City comes to life (roll with it) and chooses five individuals to act as avatars of each of the five boroughs.

(Pauses to put Beastie Boys on; To the 5 Boroughs has always been my favorite of their albums.)

Anyway, the Beasties thing broke this into two sentences rather than the promised one, but: there are complications. Turns out the birth of a city is a somewhat fraught and dangerous process, and there are those who tend to oppose it when it happens. You may have heard of Atlantis, for example, which did not survive the birthing process. There are a handful of other living cities as well; the avatars of São Paulo and Hong Kong make an appearance. There’s also a hell of an Oh Shit moment at the very end when the true nature of what they’ve been calling the Enemy throughout the book is revealed; a more careful reader than me may figure it out in advance (I should have; minor spoiler: take the myriad Lovecraft references seriously) but it’s still a great moment.

This is not one to sleep on, y’all. Jemisin is a powerhouse of an author no matter what, and a project like this that she’s openly admitting is some of the most personal work she’s ever done is not something to be missed. Go pick it up.