Review: Waking Hell

Posted on April 1st, 2017 @ 06:09
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Waking Hell (Station #2)Waking Hell by Al Robertson

My rating:

Blurb:

Leila Fenech is dead. And so is her brother Dieter. But what’s really pissing her off is how he sold his afterlife as part of an insurance scam and left her to pick up the pieces. She wants him back so she can kick his backside from here to the Kuiper Belt.

Station is humanity’s last outpost. But this battle-scarred asteroid isn’t just for the living. It’s also where the dead live on as fetches: digital memories and scraps of personality gathered together and given life. Of a sort.

Leila won’t stop searching Station until she’s found her brother’s fetch – but the sinister Pressure Men are stalking her every move. Clearly Dieter’s got himself mixed up in something a whole lot darker than just some scam.

Digging deeper, Leila discovers there’s far more than her brother’s afterlife at stake. Could it be that humanity’s last outpost is on the brink of disaster? Is it too late for even the dead to save it?

Review:

[I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley.]

Sequel to ‘Crashing Heaven’, a novel I read a couple of years ago, and quite liked. The world is roughly the same—Station, floating in space—but the protagonists are different, and the situation has changed: one of the gods was forcibly removed, and the fetches (dead people reconstructed from their memories) now have existences of their own, even though their community went through a plague that almost destroyed them along the way.

The characters: as mentioned above, no Hugo Fist or Jack Forster here, although they’re briefly mentioned. This time, the story mainly follows Leila, a fetch who’s trying to save her genius brother Dieter, and Cassiel, a Totality mind who’s investigating said brother’s death. It starts with Dieter falling prey to an old tech artifact, and dying from it; however, contrary to what Leila thinks at first, he cannot be brought back as a fetch, due to a fishy contract he signed at the last moment with a couple of shady characters called ‘pressure men’. Finding herself the unwilling beneficiary of this contract that left her a rich heiress, Leila uses her newly acquired money—and the door it opens—to try and find out what really happened to Dieter, and bring him back at all costs, the way himself helped her build herself back up after the fetch plague almost deconstructed her for good.

Even though I admit I didn’t like Leila much at first (too whiny and self-centered), and would have hoped to see Jack and Hugo again, soon enough the new characters grew up on me. On the one hand, Leila tends to keep focused on Dieter and not on the bigger picture, but this bit on the selfish side makes her, in a way, very human. On the other hand, she puts herself on the front line as well: you definitely can’t call her a coward, all the more as the enemy could very well wipe her out of existence. As for Cassiel, she brings a lot of information about the AIs, the way they live, and how close they are to humans even if the latter don’t always notice it.

(Interestingly, as a fetch, Leila is just as much dependent on hardware and on the local equivalent of the online world to exist and manifest herself. The world of Station definitely keeps blurring the lines and questioning what makes us human, especially once you throw the gods into the mix: the Rose who isn’t so infallible, East who’s obsessed with the media and her reality shows…)

There are a lot of epic virtual reality/online world/hidden servers moments. Because both Leila and Cassiel are reconstructed or artificial AIs, they’re both powerful and frail. Without a physical body, and armed with a weapon Dieter had once designed for her only, Leila has means of her own to fight and resist; and Cassiel was designed as a weapon herself, with a nanogel body making her suited for both physical and digital combat; and yet, because they’re software-based, they’re vulnerable to viruses and similar attacks… which makes the pressure men and their ability to edit data (including memories) all the more dangerous to them. Memory is clearly one of the stakes in the novel, because there comes a point when neither characters nor readers can really tell whether their memories are true or were manipulated.

A few discrepancies in terms of style (I had noticed that in the first book already: sometimes the prose switches to short sentences that jar a little with the rest), but not enough to really be a problem. All instances of ‘brought’ were also printed as ‘bought’, but since I got a preprint copy, this was hopefully corrected in the final version.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I found the ending a little rushed, with some loose ends not so properly tied, and there were a couple of moments when I had to push through for a few pages (for some reason I can’t exactly pinpoint). Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Station and its particular blend of bleak cyberpunk and transhumanism. Should there be a third book, I wouldn’t mind reading it either.

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Review: The Apothecary’s Curse

Posted on March 14th, 2017 @ 15:18
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The Apothecary's CurseThe Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Barnett

My rating:

Blurb:

In Victorian London, the fates of physician Simon Bell and apothecary Gaelan Erceldoune entwine when Simon gives his wife an elixir created by Gaelan from an ancient manuscript. Meant to cure her cancer, it kills her. Suicidal, Simon swallows the remainder—only to find he cannot die. Hearing rumors of a Bedlam inmate with regenerative powers like his own, Simon is shocked to discover it’s Gaelan. The two men conceal their immortality, but the only hope of reversing their condition rests with Gaelan’s missing manuscript.

When modern-day pharmaceutical company Genomics unearths diaries describing the torture of Bedlam inmates, the company’s scientists suspect a link between Gaelan and an unnamed inmate. Gaelan and Genomics geneticist Anne Shawe are powerfully drawn to each other, and her family connection to his manuscript leads to a stunning revelation. Will it bring ruin or redemption?

Review:

(I got a copy through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)

The story of “The Apothecary’s Curse” intertwines different plots, mostly mid-19th century London, a short early 20th century stint, and 2016 Chicago. All feature Gaelan and Simon, two men who became accidentally immortal through ingesting an alchemical compound, and struggle to lead a life of their own. Condemned for a crime he didn’t commit, Gaelan was tortured for years by a mad doctor, before fleeing abroad, while Simon pines for his dead wife, unable to join her in death. As the decades pass, they find themselves remaining that strange brand of friends who can’t stand to be in each other’s presence for too long, yet always gravitate back towards each other. Until a strange book and a geneticist fall into the mix, and both men realise they may be about to know worse than one single mad doctor in a now closed asylum.

All these plots aren’t only concerned with alchemy and immortality, but also with love: love for a woman, love of friendship, love of knowledge (even though gained in twisted ways), love of family, love of life itself… because when all’s said and done, Gaelan still doesn’t want to die, still finds wonders in the way science has been progressing.

In general, I found the main characters compelling, especially Gaelan, who never really loses hope in humanity in spite what he’s been through. I found the contrast fairly interesting: Gaelan, who tried to help and was tortured and killed for it, called a criminal and a madman, forced to flee, but kept enjoying life, becoming a dealer in old books and antiques, nevergiving up in spite of his struggles with PTSD; and Simon, who seems to have everything (respect, fame and money as a doctor, then as a famous author), but cannot find peace, haunted by the memory of his departed wife—his story was tragic, though I admit I tended to side with Gaelan much more because, well, who can fault the guy who tries to live instead of wallowing in despair for a whole century, eh? As for Eleanor and Anne, they had their own struggles to go through, their own decisions to make, trying to fight evil as they could, even if it sometiles meant resorting to another kind of evil.

If anything, I was a little disappointed in the 2016 part. The 1842 and early 1900s one felt more vivid, better developed, whereas the modern era plotline, while interesting, was also a bit lackluster. Perhaps because I kept thinking there wasn’t enough danger in it, considering what was at stake and the ‘evil genetics/pharmacy company’ that sooner or later would be after Gaelan. I guess I expected more development here, more of a feeling of urgency, especially towards the end.

Conclusion: Still a solid 3.5 stars. I enjoyed this novel.

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Review: Cyber World

Posted on March 1st, 2017 @ 15:01
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Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's TomorrowCyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow by Jason Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blurb:

Cybernetics. Neuroscience. Nanotechnology. Genetic engineering. Hacktivism. Transhumanism. The world of tomorrow is already here, and the technological changes we all face have inspired a new wave of stories to address our fears, hopes, dreams, and desires as Homo sapiens evolve—or not—into their next incarnation. Cyber World presents diverse tales of humanity’s tomorrow, as told by some of today’s most gripping science fiction visionaries.

Review:

[I received an e-copy of this book through NetGalley.]

A collection of short stories with virtual reality, AI and technology themes in general. Despite the ‘cyberpunk’ flair, I agree with the curators: it’s not so much cyberpunk in its original meaning, as dealing with various ideas that fit our current societies more than the ‘old cyberpunk’ feeling.

* “Serenade:” 3/5

A hacker decrypting data on an old USB sticks realises that said data is not about future useful information, but memories.

* “The Mighty Phin:” 3/5

In a prison ship controlled by an AI, not everything is as it looks, and truth may be more difficult to stomach than the characters think at first. Bit of an abrupt ending, though, when I think about how it could’ve been more developed.

* “Reactions:” 3/5

What a drone pilot pumped up on battle drugs goes through when the operation he’s on is suddenly cancelled… but not what’s still lingering in his organism. I found it interesting, although, like the story before it, I’d have liked some more development (especially regarding the soldier’s decision to break his family).

* “The Bees of Kiribati:” 5/5

Chilling because even though this doesn’t exist (yet), the principles behind the murders in this story could very well be applied in other ways. It also raises the old but still accurate ethical question: would you kill a few people, even babies, if it meant being able to save many more?

* “The Rest Between Two Notes:” 2/3

Promising theme (a teenager killing her mother repeatedly in virtual reality), but I found the plot too muddled in places. The resolution brought at the end wasn’t too clear–I wouldn’t mind in a novel, but in short stories it’s another matter.

* “The Singularity is In Your Hair:” 5/5

Touching and horrible. A girl suffering from a degenerative disease, who can only experience living through virtual reality, performs jobs and meets people thanks to an AI who may or may not be so benevolent. The promise of one day being fully uploaded to virtual space, and leaving the meat behind instead of facing the prospect of her impending death, keep her going. And she desperately hopes this will come true sooner than later.

* “Panic City:” 5/5

In an underground city that is both a refuge and a prison, people have been living for generations following models and using technology that are gradually failing. When something threatens to break an opening into this ‘homeostatic’ environment, the AI controlling the city has to make a decision: is their original programming really ideal in this case?

* “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted:” 4/5

A veteran from corporate wars receives prompts on his augmented reality system, even though the war is over. While such defective prompts are known to be useless, and should be discarded, these seem different… and so he follows them, desperate in his hopes that the rewards will save the woman he loves. I liked the writing here–even the prompts sounded poetic.

* “Your Bones Will Not Be Unknown:” 4/5

An assassin is sent to kill a rival boss, knowing full well there are little chances of success here. But what the boss has in mind for them is not necessarily death, and could even actually be a gift.

* “Staunch:” 2/5

A group of kids-hackers-rebels, led by a doctor who used to be part of a legendary team, travel through what’s left of the UK to save the life of one of their own. Though the plot itself was a bit weak, I liked the technological problems used in it (replacement organs shutting down if the firmware’s outdated or the copyright has changed hands, etc.)—definitely freaky.

* “Other People’s Thoughts:” 2/5

About empathy, telepathic powers and gender fluidity. Good themes, and I would’ve loved actually liking the story, but it was more descriptive than actual plot, and I found it too weak to hold my interest.

* “WISYOMG:” 1/5

Almost skipped that one. The style and character weren’t appealing, and I’m still not sure what was the idea. Warning people against body mods and fads? It was hard to follow, so I’m really not sure.

* “We Will Take Care of Our Own:” 2/5

Of corrupt politicians and corporations trying to make money by officially solving problems, and officiously sweeping them under the carpet. Again, good theme, especially since the politician has a skeleton of her own in the closet, but in terms of plot and development, it wasn’t strong nor long enough.

* “A Song Transmuted:” 3/5

A young musician comes up with a new concept to be music, rather than simply playing it—spurred by her relationship with her grandfather, his way of encouraging her to meet other people and play music with her, and this in spite of a dishonest colleague stealing her idea. Good, though not groundbreaking.

* “It’s Only Words:” 2/5

A sort of neo-Luddite theme, of a boy writing his school project on paper when everybody else is constantly connected to the web and not doing anything in an “analogue” way anymore. I’m not sure where this story was going, though: I felt that something was missing, that the point wasn’t strongly made enough at the end, because nothing really changes, and the people targetted may not even have understood what was happening?

* “Small Offerings:” 5/5

Horrific but fascinating. A story about the means that may be necessary, in a future and over-polluted world, for people to carry healthy children to term, by sacrificing others.

* “Darkout:” 2/5

Good build-up to something bigger, in a society where everybody’s living under the camera’s eye… but the end just fell flat, and nothing really happened.

* “Visible Damage:” 3/5

A hacker goes on the trail of a nascent AI, in the hopes of finding it before everyone else obliterates it. Interesting, but a bit confusing.

* “The Ibex on the Day of Extinction:” 4/5

A man far from his family comes home to find everybody and everything gone—no GPS, no radio, no internet, and only empty clothes left behind.
I kind of suspected what had happened early on. Still, I liked this story. Sometimes all I need is for the conclusion to vindicate what I’m already thinking.

* “How Nothing Happens:” 1/5

Kind of what it says on the tin? I get the basic idea, but the way it was developed didn’t grab my attention.

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Review: Wraithborn

Posted on February 27th, 2017 @ 13:25
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WraithbornWraithborn by Joe Benítez

My rating:

Blurb:

He was trained from birth to inherit a mythical power. She is the timid teenage girl to whom it was bestowed instead. Together only they can stop an ancient evil from rising and enslaving all humankind. An epic urban fantasy from the creator of Lady Mechanika! Collects all 6 issues of the “Redux” edition of Wraithborn.

Review:

[I received an e-copy of this comics through NetGalley.]

This first volume collects issues 1 to 6 of the ‘Redux edition. Most of the book is actually a flashback (explaing what led to the events of the first pages), but reads as a full story nonetheless. It introduces us to the main characters of ‘Wraithborn’, starting with Melanie, a normal and shy teenager who only wants to go through high school life relatively unscathed and unbullied, and thus does her best to remain invisible and not attracted unwanted attention. Only that’s what she does when she accidentally receives the power of the Wraithborn, intended for another, and finds herself pursued by an antagonist who wants nothing more than this power for herself.

I found the art in general fairly good, with dynamic action scenes and vibrant colours, although (as often in such cases) the women’s clothing is nothing too practical, and Melanie’s features seemed maybe too… mature? Including when she’s still a clueless teenager. So at first I thought she was more like 25 instead of 15, which felt a bit weird.

Some characters were likeable, like Zoe, with her weird fashion sense and the way she helps Melanie. Mel herself was more subdued, so it took me more time to warm up to her. Val… well, I still kind of wonder if he’s going to tell Mel the truth, or if he’ll do the not-so-nice thing. Could go either way. He didn’t act like the vindicative, jealous type he could’ve been, all circumstances considered, so bonus point.

The story itself was interesting enough, albeit not too original compared to other works with similar themes. The villains are ruthless, the heroes may or may not be set up for betrayal later by those they trust most, and there’s the lingering mystery of why the original ‘carrier’ of the Wraithborn was outside, instead of preparing for the ceremony (and therefore had to give his power to the first passer-by who happened to be around): either there’s something fishy here or it was a plot hole, and I really hope it’s the former… but, of course, this is the kind of information that is likely to be revealed only later.

Conclusion: I may pick the next volume in ebook, but probably not in paper version.

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Review: Invisible Planets

Posted on February 20th, 2017 @ 21:42
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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in TranslationInvisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu

My rating:

Blurb:

Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

 

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

An interesting collection of science-fiction stories by Chinese authors—I didn’t like all of them, but none was particularly bad either, and the themes and places they dealt with offered different perspectives on what I’m used to see throug a more “westernised” prism. I found both similarities and differences gathered here, making those stories familiar in parts, and a journey in unknown territories in others.

“The Year of the Rat”: 3/5
Quite creepy in its theme (students without much of a job prospect are enlisted to fight mutant rats whose intelligence and abilities may be more than meet the eye), and in its conclusion, although I would’ve appreciated a bit more insight in the exact reasons why the whole situation turned like that.

“The Fish of Lijiang”: 3/5
By the same author, and another take on a society where freedom is only an illusion, where everybody and everything is at their designed place.

“The Flower of Shazui:” 2/5
An ex-engineer who fled his designated area tries to help a prostitute whose desires aren’t necessarily in check with her partner’s. Still interesting, but less exciting?

“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”: 4/5
The author later mentioned a few inspirations for this story, and I agree, for I could feel them (especially the Miyazaki-like tones of a district/street full of “ghosts”, souls in robot bodies gradually getting discarded). I really liked the atmosphere in this one, and the sad ending was pretty fitting.

“Tongtong’s Summer”: 4/5
I read this one in another anthology already, but I liked it the second time round as well. Caretakers operate robots remotely in order to help elder people, and their increased role in society gives birth to other issues, but also to great hopes for a generation that, all in all, has still a lot to bring to the world. The characters were also attaching.

“Night Journey of the Dragon Horse”: 2/5
A mechanical dragon and a bat go on a journey to bring back light to a dead world. Beautiful, but unfortunately a little boring.

“The City of Silence”: 5/5
In a world become one State, what happens when so many words are forbidden that communicating becomes impossible?
Very chilling, because the way this State evolved is, in fact, extremely logical and cunning.

“Invisible Planets”: 3/5
Glimpses into little worlds. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of them explored more in depth… and at the same time, I feel they wouldn’t have the same impact anymore if this was done? Very strange.

“Folding Beijing”: 2/5
A city living in three different spaces, each alloted its own time of the day, and with inhabitants forbidden to cross from one space to the other. Which the main character wants to do, of course. Also interesting, however I felt the ending didn’t have much of an impact on me. I kept expecting something more… dramatic?

“Call Girl”: 3/5
The call girl’s wares are fairly interesting here. I would’ve liked some more background about them, how she came to be able to provide such services.

“Grave of the Fireflies”: 2/5
Loved the atmosphere, this rush through the stars to escape a dying universe, guided by the last queen of mankind… However the story itself felt too short and rushed.

“The Circle”: 4/5
I could see where this one was going from the moment the gates were introduced, and I wasn’t disappointed. I definitely liked how it was all brought.

“Taking care of God”: 4/5
Depressing in a way, but dealing with a theme that I’d deem definitely different from my own ‘western’ vision, with taking care of one’s parents and elders being part of culture in a way it isn’t in my own corner of the world.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

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