Review: One of Us by Craig DiLouie

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Wow. I don’t even know how to approach reviewing this. It’s an exploration of “us vs. them” mentality through a SFF lens and, while well-written, in no way a pleasant read. I could only read it a few pages at a time before I had to put it down again. The petty, everyday evil, the worst aspects of humanity laid bare. It was almost too much. But. It felt powerful and important and viscerally realistic in its own brutally unflinching way. Necessary.

He learned what he was, what they were, and that monsters and men were not meant to exist in the same world. If your own mother hates you and drives you away, why should total strangers love you? From the beginning, the masters understood this fundamental truth. They created separate worlds, one for themselves, another for monsters. The system would not end when the mutagenic reached adulthood. The children would grow up to become free folk living in an invisible cage, with no rights or opportunities. Which meant no real freedom at all.

The basic premise is that a sexually-transmitted disease caused a generation of children to be born with pretty significant mutations. Abortion, safe sex education, discussions on rape, medical testing have become a necessity. The plague children have mostly been taken away at birth and shut into Homes, institutions where the employees are mostly ex-cons and other sorts of desperate people that shouldn’t be let near children. They are used for slave labour on farms. As the children become teenagers, they start developing superpowers and tensions are rising.

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Review: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (Ambergris #1)

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I delight in books that piss on convention and pull it off. The plotless, the strange, the experimental. City of Saints and Madmen makes all that I read so far sound perfectly ordinary and reasonable. Of all the books I’ve ever read it is, by far, the oddest and the most experimental of them all. It very slightly resembles The Gray House in the sense of slowly discovering a world while reading (and that was the recommendation that made me pick it up), its use of unreliable narrator, and surrealism, but only a bit, in the most general of senses. The structure and the setting itself are entirely different.

Either way, I fucking loved it.

The window looked down on the city proper, which lay inside the cupped hands of a valley veined with tributaries of the Moth. It was there that ordinary people slept and dreamt not of jungles and humidity and the lust that fed and starved men’s hearts, but of quiet walks under the stars and milk-fat kittens and the gentle hum of wind on wooden porches.

The best words to describe it would be “delightfully insane.” Because it is. Utterly batshit and utterly fascinating.

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DNF: Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Hyperion Cantos #1)

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As a DNF, this review is incomplete.

Another case of an old classic not living up. It is, in ways, a very good book. A team of seven pilgrims – a priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar, a detective, a consul and a templar – is assembled to travel to the planet Hyperion and the Shrike. On the way, each of them tells the tale of how and why they got to be there. It’s an interesting structure. The prose is good as well, if tending towards descriptive at parts. The worldbuilding, fascinating enough. There’s a lot of allusions and literary references to everything from Chaucer to Keats and many other classics.

Unfortunately, though…

The Priest’s Tale I enjoyed very much. The tension and the mystery of what happened to the older priest, of what’s up with the Bikura society kept me at the edge of my seat, reading it long into the night with many a “what the fuck.” It’s almost horror in the end, but so incredibly compelling.

The Soldier’s Tale was when things started to go sour. It’s a story about a man who is visited by a mysterious woman during battles. She helps him defeat the enemies, then they have sex. Many, many times. I rolled my eyes.

The Poet’s Tale solidified the DNF. it’s just…ew. No. I didn’t mind the sweary casual style, but…I’ll let the quotes speak for themselves.

Centuries later, when I was in my satyr period, I felt that I finally understood poor don Balthazar’s priapic compulsions, but in those days it was mostly a hindrance to keeping young girls on the estate’s staff. Human or android, don Balthazar did not discriminate – he poinked them all.

Luckily for my education, there was nothing homosexual in don Balthazar’s addiction to young flesh, so his escapades evidenced themselves either as absences from our tutorial sessions or an inordinate amount of attention lavished on memorizing verses from Ovid, Senesh, or Wu.

And:

Sissipriss Harris had been one of my first conquests as a satyr – and one of my most enthusiastic – a beautiful girl, long blond hair too soft to be real, a fresh-picked-peach complexion too virginal to dream of touching, a beauty too perfect to believe: precisely the sort that even the most timid male dreams of violating

Again, ew.

Scholar’s Tale was the next, and my last. It was the one I heard the most about, so I decided to give at least this a try. It was indeed amazing. And chilling, and quite sad, though I can’t say more without spoiling. But it’s perfectly worth reading just this and the priest’s. They stand well enough on their own.

I decided to end it there, on a positive note.

I may return to it one day, but at the moment, with the disappointment that was Hard to Be a God still too fresh, I was simply too frustrated with old sci-fi and shades of homophobia and outdated tropes. There’s so many other great books out there that this shit really isn’t hard to avoid. If you can look past it, by all means, be welcome to it, there will be a great story underneath for you. I, alas, cannot.

Review: Hard to Be a God by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

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This book started well enough. The prose was quite good, with nice descriptions of scenery, the issues raised were interesting. We follow Rumata, an observer from future utopian Earth, sent to a medieval world with a couple others under a strict rule of non-interference (no killing, etc), but secretly trying to help speed up their development.

It’s fairly kitchen sink, some sci-fi tech, some medieval swashbuckling, bit of everything. The conflict arises when regime in Arkanar start killing intellectuals. Rumata knows this is wrong, yet is plagued by doubts – he is not allowed to kill and not convinced it would solve the problem.

Persecute bookworms all you like, prohibit science, and destroy art, but sooner or later you’ll be forced to think better of it, and with much gnashing of teeth open the way for everything that is so hated by power-hungry dullards and blockheads.

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Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

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I want to shove this book at everyone I know.

Can I find the right words? I can tell about how I shot. But about how I wept, I can’t. That will be left untold. I know one thing: in war a human being becomes frightening and incomprehensible. How can one understand him? You’re a writer. Think up something yourself. Something beautiful. Without lice and filth, without vomit…Without the smell of vodka and blood…Not so frightening as life…

This is a collection of accounts of Russian women who went through WWII – soldiers of all kinds, partisan fighters, and medical workers mostly, but also washerwomen, bakers, mechanics, civilians…both about the war and what happened afterwards. All of them women whose stories were forgotten; silenced or forced to keep to a certain, more traditional narrative of glory. It’s hardly a traditional war book. No listings of great battles, victories, losses. Only very human, personal stories from the perspective of those who did not get to tell them until then.

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Review: The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan

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As a rule, I prefer reviewing books that are brilliant but flawed, since usually they are the only ones that can’t be reduced to a couple of sentences. This is not one of those. Since I finished it, I’ve been gushing about it to everyone who’d listen. Seeking out fanart. Taking pauses and breaks, because just like its inhabitants I didn’t want to leave. It’s brilliant, it’s criminally underrated, and while I realise that it’s not for everyone, it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read.

The House demands a reverent attitude. A sense of mystery. Respect and awe. It can accept you or not, shower you with gifts or rob you of everything you have, immerse you in a fairy tale or a nightmare. Kill you, make you old, give you wings … It’s a powerful and fickle deity, and if there’s one thing it can’t stand, it’s being reduced to mere words.

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Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (Leningrad Diptych #1)

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I have always been a sucker for folklore-inspired books – such as Uprooted, such as The Bear and the NightingaleThe ScarThe Ill-Made MuteIn the Forests of Serre…and now Deathless.

No one is now what they were before the war. There’s no way getting any of it back.

But while the other books play the elements relatively straight, only expanding them at need, this is a dark, brutal deconstruction; like, yet unlike the other retellings. The worldbuilding is excellent. Instead of the middle ages it is set roughly during the both World Wars, so it’s hardly a surprise. Half historical fiction, half mythology, there are rifle imps and communist house spirits, soldier factories, battles from history that are really fought between Life and Death, and a protagonist that embraces the darkness rather than fighting it. The characters are not particularily deep, but I felt like they don’t really have to be in retellings, if the atmosphere and the language and the symbolism are strong enough to carry it.

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