Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

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Fantasy: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was one of 2017’s most delightful novels. On the shortlist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for best novel, Theodora Goss’s tale successfully turned Victorian horror fiction into a celebration of feminism and the triumph of individuals over their circumstances. Its 2018 sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, expands on that success and takes the members of the Athena Club on an adventure through Victorian Era Europe that highlights both the power of Goss’s writing and the absolute magic she weaves with her characters.

 

The main protagonist of both books is Mary Jekyll. The daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Mary is both intelligent and practical. Almost penniless after her mother’s death, she finds herself meeting and befriending an unlikely group of women who end up living with her and helping each other make ends meet and confront the horrors of their own creation. There is Catherine Moreau, a panther transformed into a human woman on the island of Dr. Moreau. Justine Frankenstein, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the bride of his first creation, is a painter who has greater physical strength than any man. Beatrice Rappaccini was slowly exposed to toxins throughout her young life until she became poisonous to everyone else–including her would-be lover who died. And Diana Hyde, Mary’s half-sister, the daughter of her father’s evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. These women come together in the Alchemist’s Daughter, aided by the inimitable Mrs. Poole (Mary’s housekeeper) and by the famous detectives Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Together they solve the murders of several women in London, discovering that some of their supposedly dead creators are actually still alive and practicing new experiments.

 

In European Travel, Mary’s former governess reaches out to her for assistance. She has heard of the Athena Club and enlists their aid in helping Lucinda Van Helsing, who has been imprisoned in an asylum in Vienna. So begins the new adventures of the women, sending them from London to Vienna and then on to Budapest. During their travels they meet other characters we recognize from other works: among them Irene Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Count Dracula. Goss enjoys defying expectations. Heroes/Heroines and villains get new interpretations, and often the true monsters are the most human. The result is surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming.

 

The stories are ostensibly told by Catherine Moreau, but she has help. Goss brings in other voices through interruptions to the narrative, indented to set them apart. Other characters will comment on the immediate passage (“I was not thinking that!”) or offer a differing opinion or aside about another character (“I should have kicked Diana”). These serve well as comic relief and giving us backstory on the characters that don’t fit neatly into the direct story. There are also several “ads” for the first book (“Only two shillings”) which usually bring objections from Mary (“I don’t think people want to read ads”). Although they are occasionally distracting, usually these interruptions bring a smile and add warmth to the story of these women drawn together by personal trauma and who find in each other mutual support.

 

I suspect this book might challenge some readers who like their Victorian heroes to be, well, heroes. This book is by a woman and is about women. Men do show up. Usually they are villains. Sometimes they are allies. But the book is not about them. Mary and her friends are quite able to handle themselves, whether facing vampires, spies, or former tormentors. If you have a problem with that…well, you have a problem. The good news, though, is that if you have a problem, the Athena Club has some awesome women who can come to your assistance.

 

European Travel is a long book–706 pages long! But Goss uses the length to tell a great story in great depth. At the end of the book I almost felt it was too short. I hated to see the story end. The good news, though, is the book sets up another sequel. The Athena Club has more adventures to come, more romps through 1890s Europe, and more monsters who are human (and humans who are monsters) to encounter. Given that the villain in the next book is already revealed to be Dr. Moriarty, it promises to be one that might challenge the most monstrous of gentlewomen.

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Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

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Fiction Collection: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Traveling the stars, riding a current of particles and discovering it is inhabited by living creatures riding the current with you. Plotting to assassinate the king only to learn he is not what you expected. Watching the past through a machine that lets you see it happen, then discovering the machine might also let you make it happen. Traveling to Alaska to gather the effects of your late aunt and uncovering a mystery. These are among the stories told in Vandana Singh’s imaginative collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

 

Singh is originally from New Delhi, India, but in recent years she has made Boston home. She is a professor of physics, with expertise that informs but does not overwhelm her writing. Her stories are rich with the flavors of India and the power of science. Reading them was fun. Her characters have Indian names, eat Indian foods, wear Indian clothes, reference Indian literature and remember Indian gods. Considering that India is the second most populous country on earth (and soon will surpass China for number one) and that India has a vibrant and growing technology and science sector in their economy, the lack of Indian characters in speculative fiction needs to change. Singh’s stories are a valuable addition to the genre even if that were all they did.

 

Fortunately, they do much more than introduce characters who hail from the subcontinent. They are beautifully written and wonderfully imagined stories. They introduce us to new worlds and new technologies, technologies that let you shape the future by changing the past, technologies that let you move between universes, technologies that let you ride particle waves through space between the stars. They introduce us to an Earth ravaged by climate change. They introduce us to poets and assassins, kings and queens and commoners, scientists and explorers and artists. Singh’s stories are fresh and new, but they convey the richness of a culture that has centuries of history supporting it. Her characters may live on other planets or on a very different Earth than we know, but then we hear them tell each other stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and we remember that those stories deserve retelling as much as the stories that are more familiar to readers in the United States and Europe. Even when her stories are pure imagination–the legends and myths of other planets–they feel rooted in a non-European soil.

 

Her characters are not just “diverse” because they are non-white. They are different ages and different social strata. They are male and female and non-binary, gay and straight, old and young and in-between, rich and poor, educated and not. Her settings include fancy laboratories and an urban slaughterhouse, spaceships and exotic planets and an Alaskan coastal research facility. Singh shows us imagined futures that include people of all types, and indeed it’s hard to imagine these days that any future would successfully end poverty and corruption and other societal ills that have bedeviled humans throughout history.

 

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is Singh’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection is The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. She has also written some novellas. If you are looking for some creatively written and highly imaginative short stories, Vandana Singh is definitely a writer for you.

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Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Book Review: Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

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Science Fiction: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex is funny, smart, and snarky. Any book that starts with the protagonist dodging an attack by a demonically-possessed cupcake with teeth stands out from the crowd. There are certain tropes familiar to fantasy-genre fans. Flying killer pastries? Not so much.

 

Sarah Kuhn was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in SciFi/Fantasy, not only because of Heroine Complex and its sequels, but also for her shorter pieces and comics. Her novella, One Con Glory, is in development as a feature film. She is also a popular speaker at conventions, often encouraging writers of color to tell their own stories, create their own worlds, and establish their own heroines. That is exactly what she has done in Heroine Complex.

 

Evie is the long-suffering assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s own superheroine, who uses a combination of killer moves and amazing fashion sense to show demonic interlopers the door back to hell (or wherever they came from). Evie and Annie (Aveda Jupiter’s real name) have been inseparable since kindergarten. Annie’s parents are Chinese Americans, while Evie is half Japanese/half white. Both of them received powers during a demonic invasion. Annie’s powers are not great, but they imbued her with a sense of purpose and mission. Evie’s powers are more dangerous and less easily controlled. Trying to keep them under control, while also raising her sister and managing Annie/Aveda’s outsized personality is as much as she can handle. So when Aveda is injured and asks Evie to take her place temporarily, Evie’s world quickly starts spinning out of control.

 

But this is a story of heroines! Evie finds more strength than she ever imagined. Aveda finds deeper character. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in a world with killer flying cupcakes, heroines are needed and these heroines step up.

 

(BTW, between Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series, San Francisco is a MUCH stranger place than I ever realized!)

 

Being the spouse of an Asian American and the father of three children, I loved reading these characters. Being “the only Asian Americans in Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten class” is a perspective that is fully American, but not the pale suburban experience of my own childhood. Evie is a complex, strong yet vulnerable character who fears her own strength and fails to appreciate her own value. She is far from perfect. Kuhn has bravely drawn characters who may be fully fictional but are still fully functional. I think sometimes the fear authors have in creating characters that do not fit the traditional “hero” roles (and I deliberately changed the gender for this point) is that if they are less than perfect they will be seen as less. Given the sad reality that even great Asian fictional characters have been “whitewashed” when put on screen, and the equally sad reality that publishers still reject books with non-white protagonists thinking they won’t sell, a book with flawed women of color who experience doubt and pain and failure and troubles and still kick butt is refreshing, bold, and Kuhn pulls it off with elan.

 

I’d hate to tell you that Evie’s story ends with a “happily ever after,” because that would mean that Evie’s story ended. Fortunately, Kuhn has continued the series with two more books that I am excited to read. Hopefully, Evie and Aveda will have many more demons to slay and personal issues to conquer. Heroine Complex is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

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Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

*2018 LOCUS AWARD WINNER OF BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL*

*2018 HUGO AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL*

 

“The Interdependency,” a galactic empire spanning dozens of far-flung human settlements, has stood for a thousand years. The descendants of Earth long ago discovered how to access “the flow,” a current that runs parallel to real space and allows ships to travel vast distances in very short times. The flow only intersects with real space in certain areas, so human habitation and the empire cluster around these access points. Without the flow, interstellar travel is impossible. Without the flow, most humans would die, since the access points are usually near stars which have no naturally habitable planets, so the various planets of the empire are truly interdependent. Without the flow, the empire collapses. And the flow is collapsing.

 

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of a planned new series by John Scalzi, and it has exploded onto the science fiction scene. Winner of the 2018 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is also a 2018 Hugo Award finalist for the same award. Scalzi brings his trademark humor and irreverence to this novel of an empire potentially facing destruction. He cares about the science, avoiding things like faster-than-light travel that violates known physical laws. But his gift is in imagining complex worlds and populating them with complex people. His characters include an “emperox” who never planned to become a ruler, a scientist who did not want to leave his home planet, a very horny and foul-mouthed mercantilist who does some of her best thinking while amorously engaged, and a family of ruthless and ambitious nobles who do not mind shedding blood to reach their goals.

 

The worlds of The Interdependency are quite different from the norm in science fiction. Scalzi imagines an empire connected only by access to transportation. Earth became inaccessible long ago. When humans discovered the flow, they learned they could travel unimaginable distances but only reenter real space at specific points. This meant that settlements were limited to the stars that were accessible via the flow, whether or not they had inhabitable planets. The capital planet of the Empire is Hub, a planet tide-locked to its sun. One side always faces the star, one side always faces away. Humans have created a vast underground settlement where millions of people live. Many essentials must be imported from other places in the empire. Some stars have no inhabitable planets, but huge space stations housing vast populations have been built there to support mining and other extraction of resources. Only one planet in the entire empire, “End,” is capable of sustaining human life on the planet itself. Hub became the lead planet of the empire because all currents of the flow led to it. (This reminded me of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” which Isaac Asimov adapted in his Foundation series to “all roads lead to Trantor.”) All planets in the Empire directly connect to Hub, while few of them have direct connections to any other planet. If the flow is disrupted, though, Hub and most other human settlements will become isolated and alone, and within a very few years will be incapable of supporting life.

 

The Collapsing Empire shows both the power and the danger of interdependency. It was written before the 2016 US election (but after the Brexit vote), so it is not a direct commentary on contemporary politics. It is, though, a compelling statement. A surface reading would say, “independence is good, interdependency is bad” because the flow is failing. Without the flow, interdependence is impossible and the settlements that rely so heavily on each other would fail. But the better understanding is to see that humanity was only successful because of interdependence. They may be facing a crisis because of environmental change (and I assume future novels in the series will further explore that crisis and human responses to it), but the only reason they have come this far is because of their interdependence. Because of interdependence, humans were able to spread across the galaxy. They were able to build settlements on moons, on space stations, on ridiculously inhospitable planets, and they were able to maintain a coherent, unified government for a thousand years. Yes, it’s a work of speculative fiction. It is also, though, a powerful statement of hope in the collective power of humanity when they pull together and rely upon each other. Scalzi is not one to ignore the venal and self-serving ambitions of individuals. His characters are petty and lusty and greedy and ruthless. But some of them are also caring and passionate and thoughtful and deeply committed to the survival of humanity. I am eager to see what happens next, when The Consuming Fire is released in October, 2018.

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Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

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Mystery/Thriller: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist is Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller. Coming twenty years after The Tenth Justice, his new work shows a greater familiarity with his craft and introduces some interesting characters as well.

 

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician at Dover (DE) Air Force Base. Preparing deceased military service personnel for burial is his job, and he is quite good at it. Usually the deceased are strangers, but when a young woman who knew his daughter dies in a plane crash, Zig insists on taking care of her himself. However, the body on his table is not that of Nola Brown, and the mix up is not accidental. Zig begins looking for Nola, and soon finds himself in the midst of a mystery that takes him back to his Pennsylvania hometown, to Washington, DC, and back again to Dover. His journey uncovers secrets and crimes that some very powerful people would rather keep covered, and reopens some wounds within him that he thought were closed.

 

Nola Brown was supposed to be on that plane, but switched places at the last minute. She suspects the plane crash was meant to kill her. Instead, it killed her friend and several other people, including the Librarian of Congress, who was a close personal friend of the president. She is eager to get to the bottom of things, too, but she also must confront both external enemies and internal memories to solve this mystery.

 

Zig and Nola share part of their history, connected through Jim’s late daughter. Still, they do not really know each other. Part of their challenge is learning to trust each other and work together. This journey may cover more ground, metaphorically, than the two must cover in their search to find out who was behind the fatal plane crash.

 

Brad Meltzer is a prolific and popular writer. He has had best selling books in many categories, including novels, advice, childrens, YA, and non-fiction. He is also the host of two shows airing on the History Channel networks.

 

The Escape Artist is an interesting and engaging book featuring a strong heroine. Parts of it are formulaic, and the characters flaws sometimes overcome their features, but overall the effect is positive. Definitely a great book for fans of Brad Meltzer and for fans of the thriller genre, and not a bad introduction to the genre for those who like to see smart, tough women overcome challenging circumstances. Unlike many thrillers, The Escape Artist does not use women as mere foils for the male characters. Nola has her own brokenness, her own issues, and she is truly a co-protagonist with Zig. Neither of them survives this case without the other, and both of them are changed by the other.

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Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

 

Book Review: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

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Mystery: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Cave of Bones is the fourth novel by Anne Hillerman set in the Dinetah, the homeland of the Navajo people. Continuing with characters established by her late father, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman succeeds in making this series her own. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are still active characters in her books, but Jim Chee’s wife, Bernadette Manuelito, has become the main protagonist in the books. Cave of Bones may be her best work yet in this series.

 

Officer Manuelito owes a fellow officer a favor. Therefore, despite her distaste for the task, she is driving to a remote campsite to talk to a group of troubled girls. Upon arriving, though, she is informed that one of the girls and one of the leaders have disappeared. The girl turns up at camp soon after Manuelito, but the counselor cannot be found. The search for this counselor involves much of the book, involving the missing man’s boyfriend and sister, an unpleasant state police officer, and questions about the looting of Native burial sites. Questions also arise about funds for the group that sponsored the trip, questions asked mainly by the mother of the girl who had been missing. Manuelito finds herself in the midst of these mysteries, aided as always by the wisdom and warmth of now retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.

 

Meanwhile, her husband, Jim Chee, is in training in Santa Fe, where he is charged with checking in on Bernadette’s sometimes wayward sister, Darlene. Chee is also asked to look into a possible missing Navajo man. Soon, he finds himself mixing police work with family responsibilities, and finding both to be challenging.

 

The result is a complex, interwoven plot that successfully keeps several narratives going simultaneously, then brings them together in a very satisfying ending. Hillerman books, whether written by father Tony or daughter Anne, follow a familiar motif. This is not a criticism–this is part of their attraction to me. They show a deep respect and appreciation for the Navajo people and culture. They celebrate the beauty of New Mexico. They follow the police procedural mystery textbook (if that exists). And they catch the bad guys. There are reasons why shows like Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, etc., are among the most popular shows on TV. Cave of Bones and the other books in this series follow a very similar format and nail it.

 

If you are a fan of this series, Cave of Bones is a welcome continuation. Using established characters and the eternal Dinetah setting, Anne Hillerman has given us her best work to date. If you are unfamiliar with the series, Cave of Bones stands on its own. It would work well to introduce you to a series that for almost five decades and with two writers has given us a glimpse into the world of the Navajo and the land they love.

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Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward

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Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a deep, complex, layered book that follows a family through Mississippi and through some terrible events. Jojo is just a boy. He lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, and his little sister, Kayla. His mother, Leonie, lives in the house but is not particularly maternal. Jojo actually calls her by her first name rather than “Mom” or anything like that. Jojo’s father, Michael, is in jail. Michael is white, Leonie is black, and the family is poor, living in a small Mississippi town near the coast.

 

As the story unfolds, we learn that Pop and Mam had a son, Given, who was murdered in a racially motivated killing several years before Jojo was born. We also learn that Pop had been sent to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison many decades earlier for the “crime” of being near his brother, who was wanted. Throughout the book we see the tragic and direct ways racism impacts this family. Pop was jailed primarily for being black. Given was killed for the same reason. Jojo is held at gunpoint and handcuffed by a white policeman, while an adult white woman is allowed to stand apart. Michael’s parents reject his family because of Leonie’s color, refusing any relationship with their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. These realities of everyday life are just part of the fabric of the family’s life.

 

The bulk of the story is the trip to and from Parchman to pick up Michael. Michael has served his time and is eager to come back to his family. The trip is challenging. Jojo barely knows his father and Kayla does not know him at all. Mam has cancer and is dying, so Jojo does not want to leave her to come. Leonie insists that the children go with her. As the miles pass we learn more of her story, and in Jojo’s memories we learn more of Pop’s story. When they get to Parchman Prison they pick up two passengers. Michael is ready to go. Richie is also there. He is a ghost, a former inmate who Pop had tried to protect and take care of during his own prison stay. Richie sees Jojo and recognizes him as Pop’s grandson. Wanting to see his former guardian–and wanting to learn the story of how he died–Richie attaches himself to the family and travels home with them.

 

Jesmyn Ward won her second National Book Award with Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her first was for 2011’s Salvage the Bones. Sing, Unburied, Sing beautifully tells several stories. We read about Pop’s time in prison, a man who didn’t belong there in the first place. Given’s short life is remembered. Leonie’s love for Michael, a breathless need for each other that does not necessarily bring out the best in either partner. Her descent into addiction. Richie, a little boy about Jojo’s age who was sent to prison and who did not survive. And Jojo, old before his time, faced with a dying grandmother, an addicted mother, an absentee father, and left with being the primary caregiver for his toddler sister. All of these stories are told with warmth and sympathy, but also with unflinching honesty. After decisions are made, whether they are wise or foolish, the time for apologies is done. People do what they must do, and in the face of poverty, racism, drug addiction, sometimes what must be done is difficult and painful.

 

Jesmyn Ward pulls you in, weaves her threads around you, and leaves you with a deep tapestry. Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautiful and haunting, a book that is hopeful and painful. I was deeply moved by it. You will be, too.

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Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.

 

Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.

 

Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.

 

Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.

 

John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!

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Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

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Fantasy: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

What if magic were broken? In Kat Howard’s novel An Unkindness of Magicians, magicians from the major houses in New York are competing, sometimes to the death, to become the leaders of the Unseen. Magic and magicians exist largely unseen and unnoticed by the majority of the population. Very few non-magic people are even aware of the magic that surrounds them. Most who are aware are from magical families, but they themselves were born with little or no magical prowess, able to perform only parlor-trick type skills like lighting a candle. Magicians, though, carry extraordinary power. Periodically the time comes to hold a contest among the leading magical families for ascendancy. When that time coincides with a period when magic randomly does not work, you have the potential for a crisis–and for a very interesting novel.

 

Kat Howard has written numerous award-winning short stories, and her novella End of the Sentence (co-written with Maria Dahvana) was named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her first book, Roses and Rot, was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second book, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.

 

Howard’s magical world is populated by the magical equivalent of “old money.” The leading families are patriarchal, dominated by white men who are unused to sharing power. Crashing into this world is Laurent, a dark-skinned magician from a non-magical family who has come up through the ranks with talent, intelligence, boldness, and will. He is ready to start and lead his own house, declaring he belongs at the table of power along with the older and established families. To compete, though, he needs a champion, a magician of extraordinary power who can represent his house in the magical duels and, if necessary, die for him. Sydney applies for the job with an extraordinary display of magic in the heart of New York City. She has come to New York from…well, nobody knows. She is a mystery, a mystery with exceptional talent. Laurent hires Sydney, and together they upend the tournament and the establishment.

 

Magic has always been reliable. Predictable. Controllable. But soon after the tournament starts, things begin to change. Even powerful magicians sometimes struggle with basic skills–candles won’t light. Other spells go completely out of control. An early tournament contest ends in a dueler’s death when the spell he cast surges in power and consumes him. For some of the established families, this is an opportunity to lay the blame at Sydney’s feet. She’s a newcomer. She broke the magic. Sydney knows it was not her. She suspects a much deeper and darker force at play, one that has been building in power for decades.

 

An Unkindness of Magicians is full of magic, but like many fantasy books warn, this magic has a price. How much would one pay to do magic? As the book progresses we see what the cost of magic is, and we see who is willing to pay that price. We also see who is willing to force others to pay the price for them. Sydney’s background is revealed, and we see what magic costs in her life and in the lives of others. We also see what the lust for magic does for those who are less willing to absorb that cost themselves.

 

Sydney is a strong protagonist, a magician with extraordinary talent and strength of character. She is also not alone in her quest to confront the challenges facing magic. She collects allies along the way, men and women who have also become concerned about the toll magic requires. I love the way Howard’s characters relate. In her fiction, just like life, strong women and strong men make each other stronger. By the end of the book, Sydney has gone from being a loner to being part of a team. I don’t know whether a sequel is planned for Sydney, but whether her future is written or just imagined, we can anticipate it being supported by her friends.

 

I enjoyed An Unkindness of Magicians, and look forward to future books from Kat Howard. An Unkindness of Magicians is indeed full of unkind magicians! But it also is full of strong characters, an interesting plot, and solid writing. Fantasy lovers (even mature teen readers) will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard