Review: Supply Limited, Act Now

Supply Limited, Act Now
Supply Limited, Act Now by Helen Marshall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My friend Pepper tipped me off to the Escape Pod podcast, and I've been enjoying the selection of short sci-fi stories they provide. "Supply Limited, Act Now" involves a group of adolescents coming of age at the height of World War II. Each of the children is struggling to deal with their slipping grip on the innocence of their childhood while also confronting the brutality, uncertainty, and fear of a world at war. It's a very nice piece and I'd easily recommend it to anyone with a bit of spare time for reading.

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Review: Darkness, Be My Friend

Darkness, Be My Friend
Darkness, Be My Friend by John Marsden

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed this series, but this isn't a terribly strong entry. So little happens with regard to the overall story arc that you could probably skip it entirely and be just fine.

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Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Pratchett's recent passing I was motivated to try another discworld book. Equal Rites is set on the same works as established in the first two books, but deals with entirely new characters. You could easily jump into the series right here and not feel lost. The story follows Esk, a girl on a mission to become the world's first female wizard. The table is full of Pratchett's usual with and humor, but I was happy to find that it stayed fairly focused on telling the story rather than getting side tracked by zaniness. I did enjoy this book and would recommend it for a beach read, but it is ultimately forgettable.

As a side note, the digital copy I read from my library was flawed. The last 50 pages appeared early, so I wound up reading the book in the order beginning, end, middle. This was a petty big detractor in my ability to enjoy the book. I am not sure if this is a problem only with my library's digital copy, or if this edition is just flawed.

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Review: Golden Son

Golden Son
Golden Son by Pierce Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing the tale of Darrow, Golden Son sees him graduating from the sandbox that is the Institute to the solar system of political machinations. Golden Son ratchets up both the complicated ambitions of each of the golden families as well as the diverse relationships between the characters. Even so, the action elements are retained.

As with Red Rising, this is still essentially a medieval fantasy novel under the guise of space opera. Battle sequences involve lances and swords, but we do see some larger fleet interactions as well.

One criticism I have is that the author often uses the trick of some surprise element of knowledge or capability that Darrow has that allows him to win a battle or defeat an enemy, yet we as readers were never privy to it in advance.

Overall, I'm enjoying this series and I will look forward to reading the third installment when it is released. If you enjoyed the first book I think it is definitely worth your while to pick up this second in the series.

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Review: Red Rising

Red Rising
Red Rising by Pierce Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Red Rising came highly recommended to me. It draws comparisons to a number of works that I've really enjoyed: [b:The Name of the Wind|186074|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)|Patrick Rothfuss||2502879], [b:Ender's Game|375802|Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet, #1)|Orson Scott Card||2422333], and [b:The Hunger Games|2767052|The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)|Suzanne Collins||2792775] to name a few. The story is set on a future Mars where society has been divided into castes identified by color. The golds are the elite of society. They are superior in every way to the remainder of society, and they maintain a firm grip on their leadership. Conversely, the reds are the base of society. The reds work in mines, harvesting Helium 3 as party of the effort to terraform the surface of the planet so that it may later be colonized. The protagonist, Darrow, is a red. He is quicker than most reds, and his quickness allows him to pilot the drills that require deft operation to avoid killing the operator (and his crew) deep in the mines of the planet. Darrow has been told a lie, and we read of his transformation to something more so that he can challenge the lie.

I love dystopian novels, and that naturally leads me to enjoy this story. There are a number of things I really enjoyed here, but also some minor gripes that I feel prevented me from giving this book 5 stars.

The action sequences are many and gripping. This book is a great thrill ride.

I love the intrigue and subterfuge. Who can Darrow trust, and for how long?

Darrow is plunged into a future combat school. They are divided into teams and given the task of capturing the banner of their opponents. Their weapons are pikes, swords, bows, and arrows. Even our current army doesn't train with these weapons. I understand that this is a style choice meant to evoke the nobility of the knights of the round table, but it provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to me. Where are the guns?

Darrow is superman. Yes, he has some trials and tribulations. He suffers and fails at times. However, it is very difficult for me to believe that with just a few months training and massive modifications to his body that he becomes a master at disguising his own past as well as both physically and mentally superior to his peers. It seems that there would have been some very easy times to discover his red roots, such as when he sings the full verse of Eo's death song to Mustang. Presumably his ring was on at this time. Yet this is of no concern. Instead, his use of the single word bloodydamn to Apollo as he kills him is the big threat.

A lack of noble challengers. Everyone who opposes Darrow at the university is clearly a bad person, or else they quickly fall to him and join his band. Titus the mad tyrant abuses his enemies as well as his own tribe. The Jackal is certifiably mad in addition to being assisted by the proctors. Not one challenger of merit who seriously vies against him. I think it would have been very interesting to see how Darrow dealt with a noble opponent rather than the stark contrast we saw.

I would definitely recommend this book. Even though I spent more words on my gripes than my likes, those gripes are really rather minor. This book feels as though it continuously accelerates, building momentum from a slow start to screaming across the finish line, ragged and tattered from the race.

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Review: Lock In

Lock In
Lock In by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Lock In, and I think it would appeal to a wide range of readers. Scalzi has a talent for writing sci-fi in a way that is warm and relatable. A good comparison for this book is [b:The Peripheral|20821159|The Peripheral|William Gibson||40167043] by William Gibson. Both deal with similar motifs: imagine a world where people can project their consciousness into a machine and interact in the word via the machine. Both involve a murder mystery. Gibson writes in a style that evokes the cool and the mystique of these future advances, as well as the sub-cultures that evolve around them. He writes in a way that requires you to give his words your absolute focus, and usually a re-reading is required before the entire story resolves itself for you. Gibson's writing keeps you constantly off balance, fully aware that the world you are reading about is alien to yours. Scalzi, on the other hand, writes in a matter of fact fashion that feels comfortable and familiar. You quickly forget that the people interacting in a conversation might all be machines acting as avatars for the people behind them. Both styles appeal to me, but I think Scalzi's work is something that I can more easily recommend to a variety of readers. If I had any complaint about this story it might be that everything ties together just a little too neatly at the end. Crimes are messy affairs, and to see everything wrap up with a pretty little bow that you could see coming well in advance is a bit of a let down. Still, the story was engaging and turned into quite the quick read. I'd recommend Lock In to just about anyone.

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Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has a lot going for it, but never finds a way to pull it together in a cogent way. There are so many elements that interest me: technology, programming, mysticism, hidden worlds, magic, dystopia, rebellion. Even so, I can't recommend this book.

The first two hundred pages do a decent job of setting the stage. Alif is a teenager who manages a social darknet where dissidents against the state can freely discuss their political views without threat of retribution. Alif is not a participant in these discussions, merely a facilitator, but he doesn't harbor any love for the State. The State has developed a powerful weapon for sussing out the source of these darknets and exposing their contributors referred to as the Hand.

Alif is a petty, unlikable boy. He is disrespectful and brash. When he is rebuffed by his girlfriend who has been betrothed to another man, he flies into a rage. He directs his rage into writing a virus that can detect the online behavior of his ex and prevent her from accessing his systems. He isn't quite sure how it works, but it works.

Let's stop here for a moment, as this was my first whiff of danger that the story was going to be a real turn off for me at times. I am a programmer. I've been doing this for decades. The descriptions of programming and how computers work in this story are more than just nonsense; they are ridiculous. Writing code does not work anything like what is described in these pages. If you are a coder you will likely find yourself at a point in this book where you must put your hand over your eyes to keep them from completely rolling out of your skull. It only gets worse from here. At one point Alif is in a fit of code writing where he goes into a daze and pictures himself riding a "column of data into the sky as he looks down at a crumbling base". Good grief. When Alif awakens from his stupor he finds that the PC he was coding on his literally melted to slag (conjure to mind that awful Sandra Bullock movie The Net). It was here that I nearly put the book down and decided not to finish, but the allure of the mystical jinn in the story enticed me to move on. Without beating this horse too much, suffice it to say that the writing on technology was poorly researched at best.

Alif's struggles change him as a person. By the end of the book he is humbled by his experiences as he sees the start of the Arab Spring (a bit of prescience on the author's part here, as the book pre-dates the rebellions throughout the middle east). Even so, there is still a lot to dislike. The story finishes a total mess. Hundreds of rioters rush up a staircase into an apartment for no particular reason. Alif has a final confrontation with the big bad of the story where they get into semantic discussion of their opposing views (keeping in mind there is a riot going around them, within this apartment).

Do not read this book if you know anything about programming. You will hate it. Do not read this book if you are a feminist. The women in the story are set dressing at best, and targets of derision throughout. Honestly, I'm at a loss at who I would recommend this to. It is a YA book dressed to belie that categorization. Its failings far outweigh its merits.

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Jade Mason