Review: If Then

Posted on February 13th, 2016 @ 16:04
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If ThenIf Then by Matthew De Abaitua

My rating:

Blurb:

James has a scar in the back of his head. It’s where he was wounded in the Battle of Suvla Bay on August 1915. Or is the scar the mark of his implant that allows the Process to fill his mind with its own reality?

In IF, the people of a small English town cling on after everything fell apart under the protection of the Process, the computer system that runs every aspect of their lives. But sometimes people must be evicted from the town. That’s the job of James, the bailiff. While on patrol, James discovers the replica of a soldier from the First World War wandering the South Downs. This strange meeting begins a new cycle of evictions in the town, while out on the rolling downland, the Process is methodically growing the soldiers and building the weapons required to relive a long lost battle.

In THEN, it is August 1915, at the Battle of Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles campaign. Compared to the thousands of allied soldiers landing on this foreign beach, the men of the 32nd Field Ambulance are misfits and cranks of every stripe: a Quaker pacifist, a freethinking padre, a meteorologist, and the private (once a bailiff) known simply as James. Exposed to constant shellfire and haunted by ghostly snipers, the stretcher-bearers work day and night on the long carry of wounded men. One night they stumble across an ancient necropolis, disturbed by an exploding shell. What they discover within this ancient site will make them question the reality of the war and shake their understanding of what it means to be human…

Review:

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Very difficult to rate: interesting ideas and mind-challenging themes (the horrors of war, a dystopian United Kingdom after a huge financial and societal collapse, one man’s vision to stop the war once and for all…), but quite a few chapters seemed to be meandering rather than carrying their purpose, and it made some parts somewhat dull to read.

The beginning introduces us to “If”, a current-era dystopian world where markets collapsed, people lost their jobs in droves, and where the mysterious “Process” (a c omputer? A mere clump of algorithms? Actual people behind it?) relocated some people into an apparent dream-slash-experimental community, making them coming back to simpler ways of life and set places in society in exchange for happiness. In this community, James, the bailiff, regularly dons his huge armor to evict those judged unworthy by the Process, blissfully unaware of what he actually does to them thanks to the implant in his brain controlling his actions. Where do the evictaed go? Not his problem.

Or is it?

As James starts to question his place in this new world, and his wife Ruth struggles with determining whether what her husband (and the Process) do is good or evil, made-up soldiers appear near the community: mindless, half-formed creatures given shape by the Process, to serve a goal nobody understands. Except for one, Hector, who seems to be more “advanced” than the others. The Institue, under the care of Alex Drown and Omega John, wants to study him, and task James with observing him. And so James is dragged little by little into the first World War, through the mystery behind Hector’s existence. Meantime, in Suvla Bay during the Great War, a group of stretcher-bearers also try to make sense of their surroundings, of their role, and of a strange sniper always following and targetting them…

A lot of elements intertwine and mingle in this narrative. What is real and what is dream/illusion only isn’t so clearly defined. Is War-James and Bailiff-James the same person, or not? Jumped back in time, or not? Is he forced to relive events of the past as an observer accidentally thrown in their middle, or does he stand a chance of actually making a difference? The story explores such themes, and more, through James and his fellow stretch-bearers, as well as through Ruth’s parallel narrative. Reality and illusion are difficult to tell from each other, not before the last third of the book, and this strengthens the feelings of ubiquity and confusion the characters are going through. The futility of one’s life in the trenches, fighting faceless enemies again and again, being wounded and dying for what appears to them as “nothing” – because they just cannot make sense out of that war anymore – hits right home when it comes to the Great War and to what it must have represented to people who lived it: the first such conflict the world saw, where the older ways of war were turned upside down and new, even more terribles ways of battling were born. (At least, that’s always how I’ve felt regarding this particular set of events in history.)

The writing itself flows nicely, carrying well both the horrors of the illusion-or-not-illusion war and of the modern world, the feeling of betrayal Ruth and James have to contend with when it comes to the Process starting to behave erratically, and the betrayal experienced by the soldiers as their leaders remain so remote. “Abandoned by their leaders” is what may sum this up the best.

And yet I struggled through a good half of the book, very likely because the Great War part seemed to meander and loop on itself: good to enforce what the characters had to make sense of, but not so good for a reader trying to keep tabs on what was happening and find out what the true goal of the novel was. As for that, I’m not exactly quite sure, though I cannot help but think that, as misguided as the means may have been, the reasons of the “brain” behind it all made sense. A horrible sense, granted, but sense all the same.

It’s hard to tell whether I liked this book or not. I’d probably give it 4 stars if the second third wasn’t so confusing (in that it seemed to chase its own tail more than playing with my nerves). It was interesting, at any rate, and intriguing.

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Review: Havelock (full novel)

Posted on February 11th, 2016 @ 20:59
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HavelockHavelock by Jane D. Everly

My rating:

Blurb:

Eliana Havelock is a female with no past, whose determination to bring down a Karachi arms dealer catches the attention of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

MI-6 is currently fractured due to political upheaval with many of its covert programs dissolved or disbanded. When Eliana presents the opportunity to divert an international arms disaster, the head of MI-6 partners her with one of it’s best and brightest, the enigmatic, Connor Blackwell.

But in a world of secrets and hidden agendas, who can Eliana trust?

And what, or who, is Eliana really after?

NOTE: This title includes all four serialized installments of Havelock.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.]

I started reading this novel as a serial last year, and now that the full novel is available, well, here’s the full review.

The style is a little surprising, in that it mixes parts from Eliana’s point of view (1st person, present tense), and parts seen through other characters (3rd person, past tense). I’m not sure what the intent was—more and more novels do that, so I’m actually never really sure—but it didn’t bother me the way it did in other stories. It lent a certain immediacy to Eliana’s scenes, and since they were of the action-packed kind, it fitted. I liked her humorous way of describing situations, too (that scene with the psychatrist? Totally something *I* would have one of my RPG characters do), and how she played her assets while totally embracing who she was. With an agenda of her own, she nevertheless lends her skills to MI6 in a loyal way.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the characters in the beginning. Nothing’s revealed about Eliana, but she clearly demonstrates resourcefulness and abilities to fight and get out of dire straits. More is to be learnt later, cast in the shadow of her origins, and if you read between the lines, those origins are easy to translate into another name, another myth.

Other characters are also close to tropes clearly reminiscent of typical spy narratives, yet a lot of things here work in a reversed way. The dashing spy/action type is a woman. The big boss is also a woman (and got there through years of service in which she played an active role, even getting severaly wounded, not because she was a paper-pusher). The potential mark-to-be-seduced is a guy. The villain is… villainish, yet his ruthlessness and his plan make him enjoyable. We have plants, betrayals, red tape bearing down on the good guys, and if you like spy novels, this book provides a lot of nods to the genre, while playing the tropes close to our 21st century world and problematics (terrorism rather than cold war, etc.).

The story’s plot looked promising, and overall it remained enjoyable. The chase goes on for quite a few chapters, with some action scenes described in an enjoyable way. The villain and his sidekick are one step ahead, while the “heroes” are also skilled enough to try and keep up no matter what.

I was a bit less satisfied with the latest chapters, mostly because some events fseemed to unfold a bit too fast: I wouldn’t have minded a few more scenes, a few more occasions to see our heroes in action. I rooted for the “good guys”, I wanted to see them win, but I also felt like the mastermind’s plan would have deserved more attention—that Eliana would have met a couple more reversals, sort of, as the enemy had a definitely strong scheme, and I didn’t want to see them beaten too quickly either. Still, I enjoyed the story as a whole, so it’s a 3.5 to 4 stars for me.

Conclusion: A bit stereotypical, but of the kind that was fairly entertaining.

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Review: Luna: New Moon

Posted on February 8th, 2016 @ 21:24
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Luna: New MoonLuna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

My rating:

Blurb:

The scions of a falling house must navigate a world of corporate warfare to maintain their family’s status in the Moon’s vicious political atmosphere…

The Moon wants to kill you.

Maybe it will kill you when the per diem for your allotted food, water, and air runs out, just before you hit paydirt. Maybe it will kill you when you are trapped between the reigning corporations-the Five Dragons-in a foolish gamble against a futuristic feudal society. On the Moon, you must fight for every inch you want to gain. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.

As the leader of the Moon’s newest “dragon,” Adriana has wrested control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family’s new status. Now, in the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation-Corta Helio-confronted by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana’s five children must defend their mother’s empire from her many enemies… and each other.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I’m definitely not a fan of present tense 3rd person narration, so it took me a while to finally get to this book. However, once I was immersed into the story, its plot unfurled and flew by quite fast, keeping me interested.

There’s corporate warfare, and strange politics based on contracts voluntarily built on loopholes to allow a way out. There are trials fought to death in gruesome duels, in a society full of glitz and glamour, of parties and fancy clothes, of heaps of money pitched against the utter poverty of those whose shallowest breath is still counted and charged, driving them more and more into depth. An exquisite blend of blinding limelights obfuscating ugly shadows, and of soft shadows trying to stand against a destructive light.

Quite a few characters evolve in this first part of the “Luna” duology. The list at the beginning kind of made me fear I wouldn’t find my way through them—and so, exerting the full strength of my usual spirit of contradiction, I decided not to read this list, to see if I could sort it out myself. Answer: yes, I could. Even though the language of this “new moon society” is full of terms borrowed from many cultures, the story still flowed in a way that let me understand who was who, who was married to whom, and who was doing what.

This same society is tremendously complex, old-fashioned and open at the same time. Alliances are drawn through arranged marriages, sometimes even between teenagers and adults fifteen years older than them (and wrapping one’s mind around that is quite a feat); those same alliances, though, don’t rest the least bit on traditional conventions. Men marry men if they like; some live in codified polyamory relationships; some decide to assume an identity based on neither femininity nor masculinity; some even go with pronouns related not to their gender but to their deeper self (especially the “wolves”: people influenced by the waxing and waning of the Earth). It’s good to see relationships going in varied ways, and I thought it fitted a future society whose defining norms were in part similar to those we know, and in part so different.

It’s, frankly, an overwhelming world, a microcosm full of its own self-aggrandised perception, dependent on Earth for some things, keeping Earth in a tight vise for others (Corta Hélio “lights Earth every day” through its helium-3 exports); as much open to it (“Jo Moonbeams” leave the blue planet on a very regular basis to come and work on the moon) as it is closed (moon people have basically two years before their bones become too brittle, and after that time, either they have to go back to Earth or decide to stay in space forever, since gravity would literally crush them). In a way, one novel—or two—isn’t enough to explore all this, and it was a bit frustrating: inwardly, I was screaming for more.

The cast of characters reflect this society. They are ruthless, they are fighters each in their own way: Ariel in the courts, Lucas through his schemes, Carlinhos with his bikers and his knives, Marina with her Earthian strength and will to find a job to support her family… Even Lucasinho, through his little teenage rebellion that however allows him to understand what finding allies truly means. They dance in their own world, wary of the other families yet drawn to them out of necessity, to play the game of alliances, of betrayal, of selling and getting information, of trying to reconcile their real feelings to the fact they cannot afford to show anything, lest they be seen as weak. And the intrigue: a slash here, a blow there, events piling up on each other now and then, until the finale. All under the failing eye of Adriana Corta, the Founder, the Matriarch, fearing her children would fight for the remains of House Corta, and trying to remain as hard as she used to be when, as a young woman, she set out to found her own dynasty, the Fifth Dragon.

(I like Adriana. I first discovered her in a short story, which made me jump on the novel when it was on NetGalley. Her own narrative, her confession, highlighted the story of the Cortas, of how they rose to power, of their allies… and of the enemies they made along the way.)

On the downside, I wasn’t too sold on the “reverse werewolf” idea: while interesting, it seemed to come out of nowhere (I was more interested in the other part of Wagner’s story, to be honest). But maybe it’ll play another part in the upcoming volume. There’s also a soap opera side to all these relationships and backstabbing and guessing who’s preparing what against whom, that was perhaps a bit “too much”. This said, since I still found myself rooting for some of the characters, and entrenched within the story, I am not going to complain: sometimes, “too much” is highly entertaining no matter what.

Conclusion: a few elements that I wasn’t convinced by, but a world and a plot I definitely want to see through in the second book.

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Review: The SEA Is Ours

Posted on February 5th, 2016 @ 23:02
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The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast AsiaThe Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia by Jaymee Goh

My rating:

Blurb:

Steampunk takes on Southeast Asia in this anthology
 
The stories in this collection merge technological wonder with the everyday. Children upgrade their fighting spiders with armor, and toymakers create punchcard-driven marionettes. Large fish lumber across the skies, while boat people find a new home on the edge of a different dimension. Technology and tradition meld as the people adapt to the changing forces of their world. The Sea Is Ours is an exciting new anthology that features stories infused with the spirits of Southeast Asia’s diverse peoples, legends, and geography.

Summary:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An interesting change of setting, mixing south-eastern Asia culture and various other aspects to engineering and more “steampunkish” elements. I appreciated this nice change of pace, so different from the typical corset & goggle aesthetics: though I still love the latter, variety is always good, and the whole steam/mechanical technology shouldn’t be restricted to European or American settings.

Descriptions and characters mostly felt real enough, and I had no trouble imagining what their surroundings looked like. Some stories used “foreign” words whose meaning wasn’t too difficult to guess, so it added to the immersion factor while not being overly confusing. A certain dichotomy also permeated this anthology, though in a harmonious way, in that several of the stories mixed technology with traditional or supernatural aspects: the Westerners’ cold, rational technology as opposed to a technology combining magic or spirits to science. As simplistic as the first may seem, it still flowed well enough for me.

What I found lacking in this anthology is something I find both very difficult to achieve as a writer, and lacking in short stories in general: it came with a lot of excellent ideas, character concepts and backgrounds, but tended to leave the reader to dry by cutting off abruptly the narratives. I kept expecting either more of a punchline at the end of stories, or to learn that those had also been developed / were to be developed into novellas or novels later. As a result, I more than once reached the end of a story thinking “am I missing a few pages here?”

Favourite stories:

“On the Consequence of Sound”: though the ending was a bit predictable, I really liked the idea of using music to make items and ships levitate.

“The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso”: exploring various ideas, such as artists that are also scientists (or is it the contrary?), science versus faith, an oppressive government, revenge, and a polyamorous relationship presented in a totally natural way.

“Working women”: a bit too abrupt to my taste in how events unfurled, however I liked its weaving of three women’s stories, colliding through mechanical transformations, how society perceived them, and how they acted to (re)claim their own worth and independence.

Formatting: a few typos here and there, however I read an ARC, so this was probably to be expected. I don’t know about the printed book.

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Review: Art in the Blood

Posted on January 19th, 2016 @ 22:25
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Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes AdventureArt in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure by Bonnie MacBird

My rating:

Blurb:

London. A snowy December, 1888. Sherlock Holmes, 34, is languishing and back on cocaine after a disastrous Ripper investigation. Watson can neither comfort nor rouse his friend – until a strangely encoded letter arrives from Paris.

Mlle La Victoire, a beautiful French cabaret star writes that her illegitimate son by an English lord has disappeared, and she has been attacked in the streets of Montmartre.

Racing to Paris with Watson at his side, Holmes discovers the missing child is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. The most valuable statue since the Winged Victory has been violently stolen in Marseilles, and several children from a silk mill in Lancashire have been found murdered. The clues in all three cases point to a single, untouchable man.

Will Holmes recover in time to find the missing boy and stop a rising tide of murders? To do so he must stay one step ahead of a dangerous French rival and the threatening interference of his own brother, Mycroft.

This latest adventure, in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sends the iconic duo from London to Paris and the icy wilds of Lancashire in a case which tests Watson’s friendship and the fragility and gifts of Sherlock Holmes’ own artistic nature to the limits.

Review:

[I received a copy of this novel through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

Decent but nothing to write home about. While I found myself excited at first, because it was reminiscent of actual Sherlock Holmes adventures, I also ended up losing touch fairly easily, and not being really interested in what was happening. Perhaps because of the hints at a potential attraction toward the French artist (I don’t know… for me, Irene Adler still remains the only woman for Sherlock). Or because the mystery itself seemed to drag, and to lack the usual “punch” I expect in a Holmes & Watson adventure.

I thought Sherlock overlooked quite a few things, and made a few too many mistakes here, mistakes that didn’t ring “true” to his character. Granted, I haven’t read any of the original stories in a few years; however, I don’t remember him as endangering himself so because he miscalculated an enemy’s move, for instance. He felt and acted as less acute than his usual self here, and all in all, he wasn’t the Holmes I’m used to: making him more approachable didn’t work here, and seeing his judgment sometimes impaired by tepid emotions was… strange. He was too remote from Doyle’s Sherlock, yet didn’t bring anything original or particularly interesting to the character.

(On the other hand, Watson wasn’t introduced, nor acted, as the bumbling idiot he too often is in too many stories, which is always good in my opinion!)

The mystery itself was so-so. Not particularly interesting, a bit all over the place (France, London, art, potential love interests, kids disappearing, shifty French detective, Vidocq, a suspicious gaoler, silk trade…), beating around the bush, Mycroft’s way of getting involved and making things easier for the characters—resulting in not much investigating on their part where there should’ve been… I suppose the themes it raised, like children treated as slaves or worse, should’ve been treated more seriously, only some of this was just thrown in, especially at the end, and its impact thus lowered.

The writing itself: not terrific either. Not emulating a “Victorian” style of writing, not close to Doyle’s, too modern in parts… It didn’t do much for me. Same with the “art” part, and the way it could’ve ran parallel with investigation methods: it didn’t deliver.

1.5/2 stars. I can’t say I hated it, but I just didn’t care.

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