Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

Bablyon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit (2016)
Series: Book 6 of the Expanse
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

Beware of spoilers below from earlier books in the series!

The Book:

“A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood. The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun.” ~Amazon

This is the second-to-last book of the Expanse that I read as a community read-along.  You can see our spoiler-filled discussions here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

My Thoughts:

Babylon’s Ashes continued the arc that began in Nemesis Games, concerning the conflict between Free Navy and the rest of the system. Nemesis Games had a tight focus on the crew of the Rocinante and their experiences, while Babylon’s Ashes widened the view to see how the conflict affected people from all over.  It did this by expanding the number of viewpoint characters from the usual four to nearly twenty people, each in very different circumstances.  This helped to show the wide-ranging consequences of Marco Inaros’s grab for power, but I also felt like it kind of diffused the central story.  Many characters only had a couple of chapters, which is not long to develop a character, setting, and story.  These were generally fun when they featured viewpoint characters from previous novels (like Prax) or particularly interesting minor characters (like Fred), but some chapters featured characters I did not have time to come to care about. In these last chapters, I felt impatient to get back to the ‘major’ viewpoint characters, who were driving the central story forward.

Some of the ‘major’ viewpoint characters included the Rocinante crew, Michio Pa, and Filip Inaros.  It’s always fun to see the story from Holden and the others’ perspective, but I was less inclined to enjoy the chapters giving perspective from inside the Free Navy.  I felt like the story was trying to make me sympathize with them, but there are some things you just can’t gloss over. The Free Navy characters either approved of or were actively involved in the murder of 15 billion people on Earth.  Whatever their motives and indoctrination, it was impossible for me to forget that they felt no regret about this massive slaughter of innocent people.  This also affected my ability to sympathize with the cause of the Belters.  It’s undeniable that they had been mistreated by the inner planets for many years, and something should have been done about it.  However, a good portion of the Belt agreed that that “something” was murdering 15 billion people, and that’s really not something I can get over.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed following the crew of the Rocinante in their part of the fight against the Free Navy. Marco’s narcissism elevated the Rocinante’s importance in the wider conflict, since he had personal ties to them through his previous abusive relationship with Naomi. This led to some exciting battles, which involved some creative quick-thinking on the part of our protagonists. For his part, Marco Inaros made for a infuriating villain.  His charisma granted him considerable followers and power to cause widespread harm, but it was clear from early on that he didn’t have a realistic idea of how to fulfill the promises he had made to the Belt. He reminds me of some very frustrating people in reality. I should also note that this is yet another book focused almost entirely on human conflict, as the protomolecule is still largely absent.  I thought this one brought the Free Navy arc to a good conclusion, and I finished the novel looking forward to seeing what would happen next.

My Rating: 4/5

Babylon’s Ashes continued the arc of Nemesis Games, featuring the conflict between the Free Navy and the rest of the solar system.  This time, the chapters followed a large number of people, showing how each of their lives were affected by the actions of Marco and others.  I felt this was useful for showing the wider effects of the central story, but it also seemed to somewhat dilute the central plot. I most enjoyed following the crew of the Rocinante, who were, as usual, right in the thick of things.  Marco and the Free Navy were infuriating villains, and it was very satisfying to see how this arc came to an end.  I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the series!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Short Fiction: October 2017

Hugo nominations season is upon us, and I have not yet read all the short fiction that I intended!  As a recap on these series of posts, it was the Hugo Awards that initially prompted me to dive more deeply into the world of short fiction.  The low nomination rate for short fiction (relative to novel nominations) leaves their categories vulnerable to gaming.  I figured that for my part, the best thing I could do is to read more short fiction and nominate the stories I like.  These posts grew out of that, simply from a desire to share stories that I personally thought were especially enjoyable.  The amount of short fiction I’m able to read in time varies from post to post, but I try to continue reading until I’ve found a few that I’d like to share.  

This batch of stories is more towards the fantasy side of SFF, with a new d-space novella from Jeremiah Tolbert, a divine match-making story from Jordan Ifueko, and a quiet alien contact tale from Dennis Danvers.  Tolbert is the only recurring author from previous posts, and I have recommended previous stories of his here and here. All the stories are available to read at the listed links.

The Dragon of Dread Peak by Jeremiah Tolbert (Novella, Lightspeed): Since this is a sequel, I would recommend reading “The Cavern of the Screaming Eyes” first.  If for some reason you don’t want to, it is still perfectly possible to understand this story without having read the first.  The basic premise is that space-time portals to d-space (essentially ‘dungeons’ or ‘instances’ in MMORPG parlance) have begun to pop up, and only teenagers have the ability to enter and resolve them. This might sound a little silly, but the emotional authenticity of the characters grounds the story in reality. The main character Ivan’s brother went missing in one of these instances, and he is keeping his fledgling (and somewhat inept) d-space team a secret from his still-grieving mother. Overall, it is a fun story about teamwork, leadership, and trying to outwit a dangerous dragon.  The novella is complete in itself, but it also furthers the ongoing plot of Ivan’s search for his brother.    

Oshun, Inc. by Jordan Ifueko (Short Story, Strange Horizons): This one was a fun story about the immortal employees of a Nigerian goddess, Oshun.  The main character works out of the LA office, seeing to the prayers of Nigerian-Americans. She uses her divine tricks for match-making, and she’s determined at the beginning of the story to impress Oshun by matching two particular lonely people.  However, matches are not always as good in practice as they might sound in theory. This was a pretty upbeat and humorous story overall, but I would note that the main character exposes some racist and misogynistic attitudes along the way.

Penelope Waits by Dennis Danvers (Short Story, Apex): I really enjoy peaceful, friendly alien contact stories.  A woman lives in a small town with an unreliable boyfriend, working at a dog wash and taking literature classes.  She wants a better life, but doesn’t seem to see a path toward it. When she encounters the aliens, though, she sees the potential for change. Her daily routine is filled with her thoughts about the Odyssey, the aliens, and the role she’s playing in her own life. It was a quiet, uplifting story told in a conversational style, and it left me with a smile on my face.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Gollancz (2011)
Series: Book 9 of Kushiel’s Legacy (final novel)

Beware of spoilers for previous books in the series below!

The Book:

“After resolving their relationship troubles, Moirin and Bao have returned from Asia to Terre d’Ange.  Together, they face the aftermath of the situation Moirin left behind.  Her beloved queen has died in childbirth, leaving behind a daughter who is desperate for affection from a father who is in despair. Moirin vows to protect the happiness of the young princess, but she has little political power as an outsider to the court.  

The one person who could protect the girl’s interests, her older half-brother and heir to the throne, is missing and presumed dead on an expedition to the New World. It is clear where her destiny now leads, to a dangerous and unknown land. Moirin and her small band of loyal companions will journey to the New World, to search for the ill-fated expedition and hopefully return the heir alive.” ~Allie

With this review, I close out my reading of the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey.  It was a lot of fun to join in the read-along, and I thank Susan of Dab of Darkness for putting all of this together.  Our spoiler-filled discussions can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

My Thoughts:

As usual with this series, this final novel again explores new lands and new cultures.  However, this time she also spends a significant amount of time in Terre d’Ange, dealing with everything that has happened since she left for Ch’in.  As much as I enjoy seeing new cultures, I really love Terre d’Ange (fantasy-France), so I was delighted to see the story was going to bring us back there. In terms of new lands, Moirin travels to the New World and encounters several different civilizations there.  I felt that Moirin was pretty respectful of the ways of life she sees in the different societies she passes through.  However, human sacrifice plays a large role in the depiction of the religions of the New World, and I’m not sure I’m very comfortable with how that side of the story ultimately played out. I think that's mostly because I'm not comfortable with the idea of human sacrifice in general.      
I’ve complained before about Moirin’s passivity in following her predestined path, but I felt like that was less of an issue in this final novel.  She does still consult her diadh-anam, but I didn’t feel like it led her contrary to what she would have decided without its influence. Her mystical pair-bonding with Bao is also less of an issue, since they’ve now also consciously chosen to be married and joined for life.  They feel more like a naturally happy couple, now that neither of them are fighting their destiny.  Moirin is also still a channel for divine influence, and often allows other forces to act through her. I thought it felt more like a deliberate choice this time, though, rather than just being used by her divine sources.  

As a conclusion to the trilogy, I liked how Naamah’s Blessing tied together the events in the beginning of the story with the person Moirin has become in the course of her journeys.  I don’t think nearly as much time has passed in Moirin’s trilogy as in the previous two, but she packs a lot of adventures and changes in a few years.  When she and Bao return to Terre d’Ange from Asia, it is quite a contrast to her debut as a naive young girl straight from an Alban cave.  The final novel also nicely addresses lingering arcs from the beginning of her story, such as her misadventures with Raphael and her guilt over leaving Jehanne before her child was born.  It was a satisfying conclusion to her story, though I am sad to have to now leave Terre d’Ange behind as a reader.

My Rating: 3/5

Naamah’s Blessing brings the story of Moirin to a close, and also marks the end of the larger three-trilogy series of Kushiel’s Legacy. In the end, my favorite trilogy is still Phedre’s, and I would still love to read more stories of her adventures.  Moirin’s story takes place in a different (later) time, with more overt magic and direct divine influence.  I had some issues with Moirin’s passivity in following her predestined path, and with the magical influence that directed her romantic life.  All the same, she has plenty of exciting adventures (and misadventures), and I generally enjoyed following along to see where her path would lead her.  It’s sad to leave Terre d’Ange behind, but I doubt this will be the last I’ll read of Jacqueline Carey’s work.