Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Science Fiction: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Cas Russell is a kickbutt math whiz. Literally. She is able to instantaneously perform the calculations in her mind that let her leverage her body or a projectile in such a way as to perform maximum damage. She can determine where and how to hit someone so that they are injured or killed. She only needs one shot to hit her target. Her body is a weapon, and weapons in her possession are deadly.

 

Cas is a retrieval specialist. She has been hired to retrieve a girl being held prisoner by a drug cartel. Normally this would be no problem for her, but her long-time ally, Rio, is undercover in the cartel and is not willing to break cover–even for Cas’s sake. He is perhaps the one person good enough to capture her, and he has done just that.

 

That is the opening of Zero Sum Game, and the thrills and stakes go up from there. Cas is not the only person in the story with extraordinary abilities, abilities that might be regarded as superhuman. Victims become oppressors, allies become enemies, and as the book progresses Cas finds that she must question herself as much as she questions anyone else.

 

S.L. Huang has a math degree from M.I.T., and math plays a major role in this book. But don’t let that scare you away. You don’t need a math degree to appreciate the breakneck plot. Or the breaking of necks within the plot. Cas Russell is a true thriller heroine, with a moral code (of sorts), brilliant friends and the ability–and willingness–to do whatever needs to be done.

 

Zero Sum Game is one part science fiction, one part action thriller, and one part geeky fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Review: The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

Book Review: The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

 

The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

Fiction: The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

Brynn Hilder is trying to get out of her bad neighborhood. Her mother’s boyfriend, Pete, is a drug dealer. Her only hope is to save up money from her jobs to go to college. One of those jobs barely pays her to mop floors at night. Her other jobs, though, have more potential–and a lot more risk.

 

Pete may not be much of a stepfather (correction, “mom’s loser boyfriend”), but he has taught her how to grift. Brynn is good at it. She has saved up almost $2000 from conning people, enough to begin planning for a life away from home. But then Pete finds her stash, accuses her of stealing from him, and her dreams appear to end.

 

A lifeline appears in the form of an opportunity to attend the exclusive and private Vale Hall. The mysterious benefactor is Dr. Odin, a man who values achievement. Brynn’s achievements have been primarily running cons. This is not a problem, though, because Vale Hall is a school for con artists. Brynn is soon assigned a mark, the son of a senator. Before long, though, she begins to learn that it can be hard to separate lies from truths, and in a school of con artists not all of the marks are on the outside.

 

Kristen Simmons has created a complex world where nothing is quite what it seems to be. The names of characters and locations are intentionally evocative, though the ending is much happier than the myth. And hidden beneath the rapid fire dialog and fast paced plot is a deeper examination of truth and responsibility. Not that this is a lecture on honesty. It is an excellent story that does remind us that lies carry consequences. The truth may set us free, but there is a price to that freedom as well.

 

Brynn is a very relatable character. Despite being told in the first person, this middle-aged man was quite taken by the story of this teenage woman. The Deceivers has great characters, a complex plot, a romantic love story, and clever dialog. A fun and worthwhile read.

 

The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

 

Book Review: The Deceivers, Kristen Simmons

Book Review: The Sea Queen, Linnea Hartsuyker

Book Review: The Sea Queen, The Golden Wolf Saga Book 2, Linnea Hartsuyker

The Sea Queen, Linnea Hartsuyker

Historical Fiction: The Sea Queen, The Golden Wolf Saga, Book 2, Linnea Hartsuyker

 

I follow several general rules for reading. I don’t read series out of order. I don’t start with the second book in a series. I don’t grab a book off the library recommended shelves because the cover looks cool. I seldom read historical fiction.

 

I violated all of those rules with The Sea Queen. I’m glad I did.

 

The major characters in this book were introduced in the first book of the series, The Half-Drowned King. Ragnvald is the King of Sogn, but spends much of his time fighting for King Harald who is seeking to unify Norway under his reign. His sister, Svanhild, is with her husband Solvi, who is one of Harald’s fiercest enemies. Ragnvald wants nothing more than to retire to his home and live in peace, but until Harald succeeds in uniting Norway, peace will remain elusive.

 

Hartsuyker bases her story on Viking myths surrounding the creation of the country, and the historical research and attention to detail shows. Viking life was gritty and often ugly. Death stalked them. Violence and disease were constants. Sewage ran in the streets and animals were housed in the same buildings as humans. The sanitized version we see at Epcot would be more foreign to actual Vikings than it is to us.

 

The Sea Queen is full of adventure. Sea battles and land battles. Political intrigue. Sex and violence. It is not always pretty, but the Vikings were not known for their daintiness. It is a well-written, well-researched, fun read. If you’re lying on a warm, sandy beach somewhere, The Sea Queen is a good choice to bring some North Sea cool to your vacation.

The Sea Queen, Linnea Hartsuyker

Book Review:The Sea Queen, Linnea Hartsuyker

Book Review: History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Book Review: History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Fiction: History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Ask her anything about wolves. After her prize winning project on the History of Wolves, Linda knows the answers. Things she is not as sure about include people. Her classmate, Lucy. Her teacher, who was convicted of having child pornography. Her neighbor, Patra, and Patra’s young son, Paul. Patra’s husband, Leo. These vivid characters fill the life and the imagination of Linda in Emily Fridlund’s amazing book.

 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, History of Wolves is a coming of age novel. It is beautiful, almost melodic in its prose. Linda lives in a Minnesota full of bugs and humidity during the summer, in a cabin with her parents. They used to be part of a commune, but now only her family remains. Neighbors move in, Patra and Leo and Paul. Leo returns to his job in Chicago, leaving his young wife alone for long stretches with Paul. For help, Patra hires Linda to watch Paul and keep them company.

 

Fridlund does an amazing job revealing pieces of the story without giving too much away too soon. We learn fairly early on there is a trial involved–but is it related to Lucy and the teacher, or is it somehow related to Patra and Paul and Leo? What is Linda’s involvement in the trial? What crime, if any, was committed? This is not a mystery or a whodunnit, but the techniques used reminded me of that.

 

Fridlund’s voice throughout the story is clear and crisp. Linda narrates the novel. Her memories of the hockey players and cheerleaders and debate team are vivid and sometimes painful. Linda herself was called “the freak,” and school was painful for her. Watching Paul gave her some escape, but occasionally her behavior toward the family makes the reader wonder whether she is one of the wolves she studied so hard as a child.

 

History of Wolves is full of pain and longing, beautiful prose, and a breathtaking plot. Emily Fridlund is an author to keep an eye out for, one with a distinct voice and hopefully many more fascinating stories to tell.

 

At scintilla.info we are happy to get book recommendations, and we want to thank our friend Ned for recommending this book to us. Ned is a local writer who is working on his first novel, and someday we hope to be reviewing it here. For now, though, he has given us a gem to read.

History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Book Review: History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Book Review: The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: The Wild Dead, Bannerless Saga Book 2, Carrie Vaughn

 

The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Mystery: The Wild Dead, Bannerless Saga, Book 2, Carrie Vaughn

Like the first book in this series (Bannerless), The Wild Dead is a mystery set in a dystopian future. The people of the Coast Road live by strict rules. Households must live within their means but also contribute to the good of their communities. Quotas cannot be exceeded so that the land is not overworked, but enough must be grown or gathered to share with others. When a household proves they can live within the parameters set and support another person they are given a banner. A banner signifies permission to become pregnant and have a baby. Households that do not have a banner are not allowed to have children, and there is no stigma greater in the Coast Road than trying to have a bannerless child.

 

Enid, the investigator we first met in Bannerless, has been sent to the estuary to mediate a property dispute. A house dating from before “the Fall” is unlikely to survive another storm without significant repairs, and the owner wants his neighbors to help restore the property. Enid and her new partner Teeg have come to check out the property and determine whether the owner’s adamance is warranted. While they are there, though, a body is discovered on the tidal flats. A young woman has been murdered…and soon they realize that the woman is not from the Coast Road at all but rather is from the “wild” people who are not part of their society.

 

These facts do not tell the investigators who killed the woman, but they raise their own set of questions. Do the investigators have an actual responsibility to investigate the murder of someone who is not part of their community? Is the murder of an outsider actually even a crime? How far is Enid willing to go to solve this murder…especially when everyone, including Teeg, thinks she should just walk away and leave it be?

 

Carrie Vaughn has worked hard building the world of the Coast Road, a world that has been shaped dramatically by the collapse of the world we readers know. The Coast Road enjoys some of the remnants of civilization: electricity is sustainably generated, food is grown in moderation, trade occurs up and down the Coast Road. But the cost is high: women receive implants preventing pregnancy upon their first menstruation and those implants can only be removed when a banner is awarded. The Coast Road society is fully sustainable, but far from free. Bannerless children are forcibly removed from their families and given to families who have banners but have not been able to conceive. And the stigma for even trying to conceive a bannerless child continues for a lifetime.

 

The “wild” people live with much more freedom, but they also live on the edge of starvation. No one says who or when they can have children, but they struggle to meet basic needs for those children. The Coast Road chooses security over freedom. The wild people choose freedom over security. When the two societies intersect, both are challenged to evaluate their choices.

 

As a reader who enjoys both science fiction and mysteries, this novel is a delightful cross-genre story. Enid is a dogged investigator who is committed to finding the truth. She is willing to do the difficult work of pursuing the truth outside of her comfort zone, even outside of her society, seeking justice for the dead woman even though she is from another culture. Carrie Vaughn has created a fascinating world in her Bannerless Saga, and The Wild Dead is an outstanding continuation of that saga. I hope there are more to come.

 

The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

 

Book Review: The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Bannerless Saga Book 1, Carrie Vaughn

Bannerlass, Carrie Vaughn

Fiction: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

In the dystopian future, being “bannerless” could mean any number of things. Many of them are not good. On the least pejorative side of the meaning, one simply has not yet earned the right to receive a banner. Banners are given when one has earned the right to have a child. Young households, households that have not yet proven they are self-sustaining and able to follow the rules of society, are bannerless until they prove themselves. However, one can also become bannerless by violating society’s rules. Becoming pregnant without a banner can result in an entire household becoming bannerless for years. Other violations can also remove the possibility of a household receiving a banner. Possibly worst of all, if a person is born without a banner, that stigma attaches to him or her for a lifetime–although it was clearly not the baby’s fault. Being bannerless is a difficult burden to bear.

 

Bannerless tells the story of an investigation into a death. A bannerless man died under questionable circumstances. It might have been an accident. It might have been something else. Enid and Tomas are called in to find out.

 

When they arrive in Pasadan, they find a town in disarray. The council is dominated by a bully. Questions arise about other possible violations. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that no one really liked the dead man, and he did not like anyone else. In the midst of this drama, Enid finds a more personal drama at hand: her former lover is now living in Pasadan.

 

Carrie Vaughn walks a fine line with aplomb. Bannerless is a police procedural set in a complex future world. She manages to keep the plot moving while building this world, setting up the foundations and the rules of the Coast Road communities at the same time as she uncovers the clues and reveals the denouement gradually. Enid is a dogged investigator, able to set aside both her complex history with former lover Dak and a personal tragedy that occurs near the end of the investigation in order to find the truth. When she reveals it, the full implications of becoming Bannerless will be revealed to both the characters and the readers.

 

Bannerless is a fascinating book with a complex world and a compelling protagonist. I am glad Carrie Vaughn is continuing to explore this world in her work, and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Bannerlass, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Book Review: Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Mystery: Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Detective Makana has decided to help the son of an old friend. The son is in love with a girl whose father needs some investigative work done. This inauspicious beginning leads Makana to a small travel agency and possibly to the answer for a question he did not know he was asking.

 

Dogstar Rising is the second Makana mystery by Parker Bilal, and it is brilliant. Again set mostly in Cairo, Makana is both dogged and brilliant. Refusing to be put off the case by crooked officials, physical intimidation, bribes, or threats, Makana insists on pursuing the truth. When a young woman in the travel agency is killed right in front of him, Makana will stop at nothing to find justice for her.

 

Makana finds himself pursuing multiple mysteries during the course of this book. The death of the young woman, which may or may not be related to the investigation of the travel agency. The gruesome murders of several children in a slum area of the city. A mysterious priest with a shrouded past. A monastery with a scandalous secret. And the possibility that his own daughter survived the car crash that he thought had taken her life ten years before. And not to give away any spoilers, but the skill with which the author draws these sundry plots together is quite impressive. Makana is part Sherlock Holmes, but much more is simply unstoppable, following lead after lead even when it looks like they might take him directly to his own death.

 

The book is set in the summer of 2001. This becomes very meaningful in the last scene of the novel, which takes place in a cafe on September 11. Reading the reactions of these (mostly) Egyptians, I was reminded of the fact that 9/11 was an attack on the entire world. Sometimes our American sensibilities are so focused on America that we don’t acknowledge that most people around the world, including in the Middle East, were aghast and horrified by the attacks that day. These may have been fictional characters in this novel, but the reactions are very much what I have heard from other sources and from friends around the world. True, there were people who celebrated. There were many more who wept.

 

In two books this has become a favorite series of mine. Fortunately for me, there are several more in the series already in print, so I don’t have to wait for the next one to come out. I just have to get over to the library for it!

 

Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Book Review: Dogstar Rising, Parker Bilal

Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales

Mystery: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Seventeen years earlier, a young British mother visited Cairo in search of the father of her toddler daughter. Failing to find him, she returns to her hotel room. A delivery arrives for her: an envelope full of cash…and heroin. The woman loves her daughter, but the temptation of the drugs is too much for her. When she awakens, her daughter is missing, lost somewhere in the streets of Cairo.

 

Inspector Makana has lived in Cairo for seven years after fleeing Islamists in his native Sudan. He gets by financially as a private investigator, although the income is poor and sporadic at best. Then a man shows up in his home and takes him to the apartment of perhaps the wealthiest man in Egypt. A star soccer player is missing, the star of the team he owns, and he wants Makana to find him.

 

Despite the lengthy time difference between these crimes and the lack of any obvious connection, Makana comes to believe there is a connection between them. Discovering that connection might solve the crimes. It might also get him killed.

 

Parker Bilal is a pen name for author Jamal Mahjoub. Better known for his literary novels, Mahjoub uses the Bilal name for his Makana mystery novels. The Golden Scales is the first of the series, which now has at least six books. I am late to this party, but I am glad my library had the book on a display. Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but my local library (www.schlowlibrary.org) does know how to judge a good book. I am glad they put it on display, I am glad I checked it out, and I am looking forward to reading more of the series.

 

Makana is the sort of world-weary detective familiar to mystery fans. I am not sure if “Arab noir” is a genre, but if it isn’t then Makana could be the beginning of a trend. Makana may physically reside in Cairo, but Khartoum is never far from his thoughts. His wife and daughter were killed there. In Khartoum, before the Islamists took power, he was a respected homicide detective. In Cairo, he rents a raft (it does not really deserve the designation “houseboat”) and is constantly behind on his rent. His sense of right and wrong, though, demand that he do his best in every investigation and follow the leads wherever they take him.

 

Good mysteries give enough clues to let the reader solve the case along with the detective. Great mysteries still leave some twists at the end. This one gave enough clues in the body to let me solve much of the mystery, but also left a few twists to change direction on a couple of matters in the last few chapters. To my tastes, that makes for a perfect mystery novel.

 

I have never been to Cairo, but Bilal does a wonderful job of describing the city, from the jinn that wind through the empty lots (as a child in Colorado we called them “dust devils”) to the traffic that chokes the city with smog to the towering enclaves of the rich to the sprawling slums of the poor. Cairo has between 15 and 20 million residents, putting it into the top 20 largest cities in the world. That certainly gives it plenty of stories to keep any novelist busy.

 

Whether you are a fan of noir, a fan of mysteries, interested in a well-written story, or want to read evocative descriptions of an ancient/modern city, The Golden Scales is a great place to start. And since it is the first in an ongoing series, the fun does not have to stop there. I am definitely looking forward to moving on with this series.

 

The Golden Scales

Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Fiction: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Defying categorization, The Night Tiger falls somewhere in between mystery and fantasy and historical romance. Yangsze Choo’s second novel is beautiful, with memorable characters and a compelling plot full of twists.

 

Ren is a very young houseboy. He claims to be thirteen, but his real age is eleven. After serving one doctor, he finds himself in the employ of another doctor with one goal in mind: to honor his first master’s dying wish. In Malay tradition, a soul wanders for 49 days after death before departing to the next life. If a body is not whole within that 49 day period, the soul is trapped and cannot move on. His master lost a finger to an infection some time ago. Ren’s job is to find that finger and bury it alongside the rest of his master’s body so that his soul can rest. All he knows is that his new master once had the finger.

 

Ji Lin is an apprentice dressmaker and part-time dance instructor. She is trying to earn extra money to help her mother. One of her dancing partners leaves a disgusting package behind…a severed finger. Ji Lin tries to return it to him with the help of her step-brother, only to find out the man has died under mysterious circumstances.

 

Ren and Ji Lin find themselves drawn together, both through circumstance and through shared dreams of a mysterious little boy. Choo does a great job of keeping their stories separate until they naturally come together. The author also keeps the reader guessing until the last moment about the mysteries that pervade the plot, mysteries which encompass the missing finger and several deaths throughout the novel. When it does all come together, the result is very satisfying. But I don’t want to spoil any details for other readers.

 

Chinese and Malay traditional beliefs are woven throughout, but are introduced with solid explanation so readers unfamiliar with those beliefs are not left behind. The five Confucian virtues figure prominently, and the names of many of the characters are taken from those virtues, including Ren and Ji Lin. Their encounters with various dream figures are possibly just dreams, and are possibly more than that. Choo does a nice job of leaving some decisions up to her readers.

 

A satisfying, beautifully written book with a compelling plot and thoughtful characters, The Night Tiger is a book I highly recommend to almost anyone who likes fiction. I loved it.

 

You might also enjoy:

Booklist: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

 

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

 

The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Fantasy: The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

 

Isabella Camherst can face dragons. She has met with heads of state, with scientists from around the world. She survived the cold steppes and the machinations of local warlords, and as we learn in this volume she triumphed over the savannahs and swamps of Eriga. Early in this book, though, she faces her most formidable foe of all.

 

Her mother.

 

The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of the memoirs of Lady Trent, a fantasy series set in a Victorian-type era where real men are men of breeding and education, and real women stay home and mind the household. Unless you are Lady Trent. Accompanied by a companion from her previous journey (a man, but not a man of breeding) and by a runaway heiress, Isabella sets forth to the continent of Eriga, home to lions and elephants and leopards and several kinds of dragons.

 

In Eriga she must navigate her way through palace intrigue, through political waters muddied by foreign influences (including those from her home country of Scirland), and eventually through the swamps of the “Green Hell,” the jungle home of a rare and surly type of dragon. She courts danger and scandal and finds plenty of both.

 

Marie Brennan’s delightful character must deal with converting skirts to trousers, being confined with other women during her menstruation, and other issues that are gender related. Brennan does a great job remaining true to the Victorian-era sensibilities, once with Isabella apologizing for the rough language of calling something a “godsend”; one shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, although in fairness that is what the man said and neither the man nor Isabella are particularly religious. The book is at times whimsical, at times serious. Always, though, The Tropic of Serpents is a wonderful story about a very well-drawn character.

 

You might also enjoy:

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Book 3 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word (Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series), Genevieve Cogman

 

 

The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan