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Review: Harrow the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel Gideon the Ninth was an absolute revelation to me. Unapologetic and audacious, it easily became my favorite book of 2019. If I could have “Queer Baroque Necropunk” be a legit genre, I would likely buy anything published in it. And as for the sequel, I would have been perfectly content to read another story like Gideon.

But that would be too easy.

The following review contains spoilers for Gideon the Ninth.

Right from the get go, Harrow the Ninth aims to confuse. You see, this is not the Harrow we remember from the first book. Gone is the viper wit, the withering confidence, the precocious bone genius. Instead, we are offered a Harrow that somehow bungled the Lyctoral process. One who is beset by physical frailty and the gravitational pulls of anxiety and depression. She is a young girl, alone and trapped on a space station with teachers who despise her — one of whom is even trying to murder her! — and a God who feels sorry for her, and has no answers to her questions.

This is also a Harrow who went to the First House with Ortus Nigenad as her cavalier primary. But…

Is this how it happens?

Harrow the Ninth is a brave new frontier that flirts with the post-modern. Tamsyn Muir has earned the reader’s trust, and soon the maddening mystery of Harrow’s sorry state, as well as the inconsistencies of her existence begin taking shape. The novel alternates between two types of chapters. Some are in second person, in which she is being told how the present is unfolding by a mysterious narrator. The past tense makes them an interesting experiment of storytelling, as if Harrow herself was not present for these events. The rest are in traditional third person, and retell the story of her journey to the First House. Except, it’s all wrong. Nothing happens the way it was described in Gideon the Ninth. Characters are not who they appear to be, and at sudden moments people will question the reality around them.

The cast of said characters is just as colorful as that of Gideon, though in a completely different way. Everyone carries their own unique damage. Harrow’s new sister Ianthe Tridentarius — formerly Princess of Ida, now Lyctor of the First House — has murdered an unwilling cavalier to achieve her sainthood. Now struggles with a sword hand that won’t obey her. God himself and his three surviving original Lyctors are creatures who have known each other for ten thousand years, They have accumulated civilizations’ worth of grudges and emotional baggage, deliciously opaque for any reader who has not been alive for a myriad. Meanwhile, Ortus Nigenad — failed cavalier primary of the Ninth House in Gideon the Ninth — seeks redemption in the eyes of the reader, as he tries to fulfill his role in a story that never happened.

Harrow the Ninth throbs with the disquieting feeling of paranoia and an almost Gene Wolfean puzzle box quality. Things are not as they seem, the world is not as it should be. This is not how it happens. The wrongness permeates not only the inaccurate retelling of the events at the First House, but also the present in the Mithraeum — the Emperor’s space station, 40 billion light years away from Dominicus and its Houses — where a dead Lyctor stalks the hallways seeking vengeance, while a living one bears the name of the wrong cavalier, as well as an inexplicable thirst for Harrow’s life. In the twisted hallways of God’s home, she is not simply frail and confused. She is haunted.

That this mystery is absolutely maddening, is a given. But Tamsyn Muir uses it brilliantly to tell a story of a girl on the brink of mental breakdown. It is a story of depression and inadequacy, and of injustice. And as Harrow tries to understand her failures, and overcome them, it also becomes a story of heartbreaking intimacy and truly heroic emotional openness.

Harrow the Ninth is an absolute masterpiece, just like its predecessor, while being twice as ambitious. It takes a bold new trajectory, but still retains the baroque darkness that makes Muir’s universe so enticing. What it lacks in contemporary humor, it more than makes up for in far more complex storytelling and character development. The book makes you emotionally invested not only in the current plot, but also in a messed-up retelling of a story you already know. And it the process, it gives wonderful center stage to characters you thought you’d never meet again.

Which is outrageous, as well as absolutely delightful, just like everything about Tamsyn Muir’s writing! To be fair, I wish that the first few chapters were a little more welcoming. The story is extremely confusing at first, and the reader is thrown into a labyrinth with no clear exit. But in the end, there was never a doubt in my mind that the book would deliver on its mysteries. I just didn’t anticipate how incredible it would be in the process.

Review: Middlegame

As part of my Hugo 2020 marathon, I finally got through Seanan McGuire’s massive epic Middlegame. It’s not that I didn’t want to, honestly. But I only recently got acquainted with McGuire’s work, and I feared that I might be oversaturated with it. I am happy to report that I was wrong to worry.

Middlegame is massive. Not just in page-count, but in scope, and in a way I genuinely like. The story begins decades ago (but really, over a century ago), with the creation of two unique children. In a world where centuries-old alchemists practice their miracles in secret, a brilliant and monstrous genius — himself the creation of another — seeks to achieve what even the mistress he killed could not: embody a guiding principle of the universe in human form. Twins Roger and Dodger are the two halves of the Doctrine of Ethos. Placed in adoptive families under surveillance, they are meant to grow apart from each other. This way, by the time their powers manifest, they would be easier to control.

Except, they find each other in the space between their minds.

Middlegame follows Roger and Dodger from their 7th year until present day, when they’re in their late 20s. The narrative is omniscient, jumping perspectives between the two protagonists, as well as the villains trying to control their destinies. McGuire is amazing at this type of storytelling. She often flat out tells the reader of tragedies still to come, only to deliver them later in unexpected ways.

The story goes to some genuinely dark places, and while I am not one for content warnings, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a whole lot of fairly gruesome murder, and a particularly grueling scene of self-harm. The author doesn’t do this lightly, or for shock value, but still, it’s important to know in advance that this is not a YA adventure.

The violence and tragedy underline another theme of the book, which is alternate timelines. McGuire deftly spreads out signs that the twins are on a path that has led them to failure and death many times. And they have rewritten their fate over and over, trying to retain even a fraction of knowledge that might save them next time. The more they mature, the more their story focuses on the power that they embody. Middlegame begins as a tale of two children learning how to be what they are without hurting each other. But by the end, the magical aspects of the world are driving the vehicle full speed. And for the longest time it seems like they’re driving it into a concrete wall.

Roger and Dodger are wonderful characters, particularly Dodger. She is a math prodigy, and while not explicitly labeled as such, certain aspects of her are coded as autistic. McGuire develops her brilliantly, both as herself, and in the context of her sometimes-toxic, but always loving relationship with her more mundane brother. Roger himself is more subtle, more relatably flawed, at least at first. But the story also follows him more closely than it does his sister, and so we get to see how divinity impacts them on a deeply human level.

I have seen people criticizing the book for its length. The way I see it, this story could either be a very short action adventure, or the sprawling coming of age saga that it is, with no middle ground. As I thoroughly love McGuire’s writing and characterization, I didn’t mind the sprawling coming of age saga version, but I can see how others might be more focused on story. Even so, the book ultimately delivers on that as well. It just asks you to stick with it. And in its defense, it never drags its heels. As the twins grow, their lives never cease to be compelling.

All in all, I really loved Middlegame. It makes grand promises, and then surprises you by actually delivering on them. It does so in a single volume too, raising the stakes to a point where sequels would be impossible. And even if I love a good series, there is a lot to be said about solid stand-alone storytelling. Definitely recommended reading, with some content warnings.

P.S. The audiobook is read by Amber Benson, a.k.a. Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not that this is terribly relevant, but it was an added plus for me.

Review: The Only Good Indians

Before I start this, I need to admit something. This is the first work by Stephen Graham Jones that I have ever read. I could immediately tell that I would be unable to fully appreciate the cultural nuances of the Native American (his characters even mock this term) experience. But with that out of the way, let’s dig in!

On surface plot level, The Only Good Indians resonates with the classic Stephen King style of horror. Four Blackfeet Native American friends (the author’s own tribe) once trespassed into land reserved for tribe elders. They found a herd of elk and shot them down. Except, a small female had more to fight for than the rest, and refused to die. Lewis, one of the four, had to shoot her repeatedly in the head before she would give up. And after her eventual gruesome death, he found out she had been with calf.

Ten years later, the massacre still haunts Lewis. And while his friends have forgotten all about it, it’s going to haunt them as well. As all four have broken with tribal traditions to one degree or another, and lost the meager support systems they had in the past, a dark entity driven by hatred and pain targets them one by one.

One needs very little understanding of the Native American experience to recognize how deeply suffused with it this book is. The Only Good Indians is a tale of sorrow and abandonment, more than it is about elk demons and vengeance. It deftly explores identity, and what’s left of it when you cut out tradition. Only to find that tradition was all that held the whole thing together. The characters are a fractured bunch, members of a fractured people. Even within the chamber ensemble of the story, being “Indian” is not all-encompassing. Jones deftly uses the Blackfeet’s ancestral mistrust of the neighboring tribe, the Crows, to sow paranoia, to brilliant effect.

Paranoia is actually one of the strongest tools of the book. While the prologue already tells us in no uncertain terms there is to be some spirit shit going down, the first half of the story is slow and ambiguous. Unsettling. We follow Lewis himself in those chapters, as he superstitiously jumps from one insane scenario to the next, trying to decipher the haunting that seems to be choking out his life outside the reservation. And then the story starts escalating, and refuses to stop until the gore-splattering end.

Jones is an amazing writer. I know I am late to the party, but damn! He paints an atmosphere with just a few words, and it is THICK, and disturbing, and visceral. The writing evokes powerful imagery, whether you want to see it, or not. On that note, if I had one — very personal — complaint about The Only Good Indians, it would be the graphic depictions of violence against dogs. Poor puppers…

In the end, I cannot speak to the mindset, worldview and emotional experiences of the characters in the book. But I can definitely attest to how strong their impact was on me. This book is a short read, simultaneously heavy and impossible to put down. The Only Good Indians is a miasmic mixture of tragedy, a sense of pointless waste, and a flickering of triumph, snatched from the jaws of desolation. And if the genre is not a deal breaker for you, it is easily among the most impressive works of the summer.

Review: Mexican Gothic

I have experienced very little Gothic aesthetic, especially in literature form. Just about enough to recognize its trappings, but certainly nowhere near as much as I’d need to analyze it competently. This might be why I approached Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic with a certain trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This is a novel that speaks for itself, in clear and compelling voice.

Young, rich debutante Noemi Taboada is running wild and carefree in 1950s’ Mexico City. Then her father abruptly changes that when he shows her a letter from her orphaned cousin. Catalina recently married into a once-rich old British family, and now lives with them in a faraway part of Mexico. Her letter is rambling and insane. She accuses her husband of poisoning her, mentioning voices within the walls, and other disturbing things. Noemi’s father insists that she goes to her cousin, to make sure the family will avoid a tabloid scandal.

But upon arrival in High Place — an old manor with no electricity, up on a foreboding hill, perched above an impoverished village – Noemi quickly finds herself trapped in a strange and hostile world. The Doyle family, into which Catalina married, is unfriendly and strange. The ailing old patriarch Howard is an eugenicist, deeming her “mixed” race inferior. Her cousin’s husband Virgil is in turns menacing, lascivious, and tender. Catalina herself has taken ill, and Noemi barely gets to see her, only to find her listless and distant.

Then the dreams come.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, invoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired…

Mexican Gothic is exactly as advertised — a gothic horror with a socially conscious twist. The Doyles are an old British line. They’re steeped in tradition, stringent rules, and sense of superiority, despite their impoverished and decaying state. There are other elements that place the story firmly in its time and place as well. Even so, the novel is far more focused on its plot than any kind of sociological exploration. Though the pacing is slow to begin with, it never seems to drag, but rather weaves subtle layers of tension. In the second half, this tension explodes in directions often gruesome and genuinely disturbing.

In typical gothic fashion, the story has an underlying current of forbidden sexuality. And as any self-respecting horror, it uses it to unsettle the reader. Noemi is a strong-willed and brave girl, but she is just a girl. And she is among people who often don’t even try to hide the predator behind the noble facade. To her credit, Moreno-Garcia understands how to do horror well. She never crosses lines for shock value, but rather allows her story to dance on the edges of snapping tension. Meanwhile, she also fully utilizes the gothic aesthetic, both in dialogue, and in painting Noemi’s surroundings.

Just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.

What I loved most of all, is that while using traditional forms and language to tell her story, the author is unabashedly creative with her worldbuilding. While I happened to guess many of the book’s plot-twists and revelations, I actually loved them no less for it. The concept at the core of Mexican Gothic is original and profoundly unnerving, while still utilizing the themes of gothic literature. In all honesty, Silvia Moreno-Garcia vastly over-delivers on the minimalist setup she begins with.

In short, Mexican Gothic is a captivating, alluring, living thing, pulsating with promise. From the gorgeous cover to the last sentence, the novel brings equal doses excitement and revulsion. It is highly aestheticized, yet tells its story in a consistently discomforting way. As a sidebar, I would recommend that you avoid reading too many reviews. The story is easy to spoil unwittingly, and it is worth experiencing without expectations. Suffice it to say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and if gothic horror is something you are willing to give a chance to, I cannot imagine you will be disappointed.

(Retro) Review: A Civil Campaign

I knew I had to write this review the moment I finished the book. Obviously, it is nowhere near current. In fact, as of this year, A Civil Campaign can drink legally in the United States. But it is just so incredibly unique in its place in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ouvre, and I enjoyed it so much, that I had to share.

Some housekeeping. While I won’t spoil the specific plots of previous novels, chronologically this is the 12th book in the Vorkosigan Saga. I cannot talk about it without referring to character developments that are likely to spoil some significant moments in the series. But with that said, if you are even remotely interested in reading this review, you are obviously up to speed.

Okay. Here goes.

A Civil Campaign is an impossible book. It shouldn’t exist, and if it were written by a lesser writer, it wouldn’t work. However, it is also possibly the best installment in the entire series. Bujold describes it as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners”. It centers around an upcoming wedding, intertwining several characters’ wacky romances and a number of political sub-plots, also of the wink-wink variety.

The reason why this does not crash and burn, when placed within a military space opera context, is simple. We care. Lois McMaster Bujold has built these complex characters and their relationships within story after story that focused on adventure and mortal danger. Now, she gets to have them relax (well, not really) and just have fun.

(But not Ivan. Never Ivan. Fuck Ivan in particular.)

(…Poor Ivan)

And if we’ve made it this far, we want to see this. Sure, we know how Miles interacts with his psychotic clone brother Mark when the stakes are life and death. But who doesn’t want to know what their relationship is like when living under the same roof, and dealing with an infestation of genetically engineered bugs that produce butter? Or their perspective on each other’s absurdist love life?

Add to that a Vor lord who finds out that he is part Cetagandan Ghem. Then a Vor lady who goes to Beta Colony for a sex change operation, so she could inherit her dead brother’s countship. Now we have political stakes as the Council of Counts must vote on these, and the picture is complete.

Yet, at the same time, A Civil Campaign is a mature work that does not skip character building. The budding romance between Miles and Ekaterin is a glorious portrait of a hyperactive neurotic and a world-weary intellectual, both of whom have trouble realizing that they are really on the same page. Mistakes are made. Some of them hilarious. Some — meaningful. All of them gorgeously written.

A Civil Campaign also features a lot of parenting. We’ve known Aral, Cordelia, and the Koudelkas since before Miles was born. Now we get to see them dealing with the next generation becoming adults in their own right. The result is a mixture of fascination and exasperation. Hilariously, and thanks to Ekaterin’s son Nikki, even Emperor Gregor gets to do a bit of parenting. Which really completes some kind of circle of life that I am not even sure how to describe.

All in all, A Civil Campaign is a flawless work of fiction. It relies on the reader’s love of its world, and the characters whose relationships are interwoven throughout it. And the reader, if they know what’s good for them, does not let Bujold down. At least this reader didn’t. This book is literal therapy, and I cannot recommend it enough, if you’ve read the previous novels and some-crazy-how stopped yourself before delving into this one.

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

My first reaction upon hearing that the Hunger Games was about to have a prequel, was confusion. As a moderate fan of the series, I welcomed another journey into the world of Panem, of course. But the 10th Hunger Games specifically? When there are so many potentially cooler moments in the past we could visit? Who asked for this?

Well, it turns out we all did. We just didn’t know it.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us 64 years into the past. The war between the Capitol and the 13 Districts has only been over for a decade, and reconstruction is slow. Parts of the once shining city are still in ruins. Its once celebrated noble families cling to the glory of old names, even when their riches are gone. And if it is even worse in the Districts, young Capitol Academy student Coriolanus Snow doesn’t care. Having lost both his parents in the war, he now lives in their once resplendent penthouse with his equally orphaned cousin Tigris and their “Grandma’am”, who is slowly going senile.

His one chance of a future lies in a scholarship to attend University after graduation. But to earn that, he must first prove himself in the first batch of Mentors in the Hunger Games. If he could lead his assigned Tribute to victory, his path forward is guaranteed. Except, he gets assigned the flamboyant performer Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. And all his carefully laid plans blow up.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have easily been a very problematic book. President Snow is an unapologetic villain in the original trilogy. There was a risk that this prequel could have been a sappy attempt at sympathy. But Suzanne Collins elegantly makes us care for “Coryo”, while sowing the seeds of what he would become from the very beginning. He is earnest, but vain. Kind, but calculated. Friendly to the less fortunate, but secretly feeling superior to them. In a way, he is a victim of his class, surroundings, and history. But he also makes all his choices. At no point do we feel that he is too good to become the horrifying mastermind of 64 years later. But we also understand what path took him there, and we can understand him enough to like him.

This masterful balancing act transforms The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Instead of a pointless prequel, it becomes a fascinating portrait of a historic figure, and the world that created it. But Collins also delivers an exciting story to go along with it. The Capitol is a far cry from its future splendor, and so are the Hunger Games. As Gamemakers experiment with new ideas to turn a bunch of starved kids killing each other inside a ruined coliseum into a national entertainment, we see the nuggets that will flower into the diabolical contest of the original trilogy. As expected, Coriolanus plays a huge part in this evolution, sometimes unwittingly, but often deliberately.

Lucy Gray Baird plays an important part both in the story, and in Coryo’s development. A talented singer from a group of traveling musicians, she is a cunning performer, and the reader is never 100% certain of her motives. Collins plays any possible connections to the original trilogy close to the chest, but suffice to say Lucy is the one who composes “The Hanging Tree”. Make of that what you will.

All in all, I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes quite a bit more than I expected. It fleshes out the past, and one of the world’s most important characters in an honest, complex, and exciting way. It is also perfectly self-contained, while welcoming the possibility of sequels. But whether Collins decides to continue the tale of Coriolanus Snow, or chooses to jump to a different point in time, I am excited for what comes next.

Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

Boundless, terrifying freedom…

Final Fantasy VII is one of the greatest J-RPGs of all time. It popularized the franchise outside of Japan, and single-handedly turned PSOne into a global phenomenon. It gave birth to three spin-off games, two feature-length movies, and a ton of other tie-in media. It is the quintessential gaming classic. And now, nearly a quarter century after its release, we finally get a remake.

…Sort of.

Before I say anything further, I need to specify something that isn’t immediately apparent from the marketing. This game does not cover the entirety of the story. The roughly 35 hours of the main campaign only adapt the first 8 of the original game – the Midgar arc.

Final Fantasy VII Remake takes place in the city of Midgar. The corporation Shinra is mining Mako — the life force of the planet — to use as a power source, threatening all life. Only a small group of eco-terrorists, known as Avalanche, are willing to defend their world. The story begins with mercenary-for-hire Cloud Strife and a small group of freedom fighters, as they try to blow up a Mako reactor. This will start a chain of events that will change the entire world.

If you’ve played the original, you know how much bigger the story becomes. It includes ancient secrets, genetic experimentation, and extraterrestrial threats. As well as some of the greatest moments of tragedy and heroism in the history of gaming.

However.

From the very beginning, Final Fantasy VII Remake gives indication that something isn’t quite right. Minor events happen differently from the original. And not long after, Cloud encounters a group of mysterious shades (think Dimentors made of dust). They sometimes attack our heroes, and sometimes help them. Always in key points where the story diverges from its predecessor. Little by little we realize that this game has the potential to take its characters in a completely new direction.

The rest, as they say, is spoilers.

The gameplay is standard for a modern J-RPG. The Active Time Battle system is tried and true, though occasionally there is too much going on for the player to feel fully in control. Luckily, those moments are rare, and the variety of skills and magic makes combat exciting and fun. You can have a maximum of three characters, only directly controlling one at any given time. The other two will follow commands, but without those they only use their basic attacks, and block. Like, they will block a lot.

That last part was a bit of a disappointment. Considering that this game took half a decade to make, I would have expected a bit more intelligence from your party. What’s more, Final Fantasy has had phenomenal algorithms of behavior since literally two generations ago. Even the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII (PS2) would have made of this game an absolute delight. However, the overall difficulty level is pretty low (even on ‘hard’, where you cannot use items, and don’t regain MP until chapter breaks). The command menu slows time to a crawl, and its navigation is intuitive enough, so telling everyone what to do is not a chore. But it still feels a bit lazy.

Visually, Final Fantasy VII Remake is absolutely gorgeous. Action and magic animations are fluid and colorful, without being too chaotic. The monster design is traditional Final Fantasy fare, but it is still wonderful to see old favorites get a glow-up.

While the art style might remind some people of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a direct comparison shows that the new game has a slightly more cartoon-ish approach to character depiction (back in 2005, the movie’s goal was to create hyper-realistic people in contrast with the original). The transition between cut-scenes and gameplay is seamless, and the city of Midgar is absolutely breathtaking. From the dystopian techno-complexes of Shinra, to the slums beneath the city’s giant metal plate, this world is bright and full of life. And for those of us who recall these sights in their 1997 glory, the nostalgia is real.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a fairly streamlined, almost entirely linear experience. Although there are some secrets to find, nothing is truly missable. Completing the game gives players a chapter select option, retaining all progress. If you want to go for the Platinum trophy, it will take 55-75 hours, depending on pacing.

Overall, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a medium, but satisfying challenge, relying more on skill than grind. Understanding gear and ability customization makes a huge difference, which I always appreciate in a game. It is a beautiful return to a beloved world, telling a story that holds infinite promise. And although it ends before giving you most of the answers, there is still a sense of completion. I admit, I have certain (very plot-based, very spoilerific) fears regarding the future of this new franchise. But if its first installment is any indication, that future is going to be bright.

Review: Network Effect (Murderbot #5)

I adore Murderbot. Martha Wells’ dissociative, depressive, anxious, asexual, agender, soap-opera-loving AI is among the most brilliant and deeply human characters of modern science fiction. The four novellas that form the first arc of SecUnit’s life as a free agent are an absolute delight of cyberpunk espionage and military SF. So, when I knew a full-blown novel was coming, I. Could. Not. Wait.

Network Effect is listed as “Book 5” in the series, but really, it’s kind of Arc 2. Or possibly even just the beginning of it. The story follows Murderbot, living on the planet Preservation after the events in Exit Strategy. On the way back from a survey mission, its team is intercepted by a familiar space vessel. Some of them are taken captive, including Murderbot itself.

Things only get weird from there.

Network Effect is a more ambitious work than the preceding stories. It expands into various directions — from alien remnants and corporate intrigue, to AI identity and the extreme awkwardness of bots trying to figure out how friendship works. Some-magical-how, Murderbot manages to both be its lovable autistic self, and visibly grow before the reader’s eyes. The book even offers the POV of another SecUnit at some point, in a brilliant demonstration of how unique these individuals are.

The book takes a second to fire up all cylinders (like I know how cars work…). The first third is a tad slower than I would have liked. But it makes up for it with a much higher level of mystery, and a way more complex story. Once the entire cast is on stage, and the revelations start piling up, Network Effect not only reaches, but surpasses its predecessors on practically every level.

Martha Wells has unlimited credit with me at this point. If she only writes Murderbot novels for the rest of her life (I hope she does not, but, yunno, if), I will still be the happiest non-augmented human on Earth. And if you are yet to experience the brilliance of this series, there is a solution! First, find a shame nun meme, and look at it until you regret the choices that led you here. Then attack All Systems Red with extreme prejudice.

And for those of us up to date — Book 6, Fugitive Telemetry is coming out in less than a year!

Review: The Last Emperox

The Collapsing Empire trilogy holds a special place in my heart, as does John Scalzi himself. The eponymous first book was the catalyst for my decision to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Not because of any one specific thing in it — though it’s certainly an awesome space opera — and perhaps I was already looking for something to give me the final push. But the fact remains that it was Scalzi and his story of a galactic society, built on corporate monopolies and controlled comfort, that made me want to do this myself (I am referring, of course, to contorlling society through corporate monopolies).

The trilogy is finally done. And the whole thing worked!

(Obviously, SPOILERS to follow — this is the third part in a series after all.)


The Last Emperox begins where The Consuming Fire left us: Cardenia Wu-Patrick, a.k.a. Emperox Grayland II, has just thwarted another attempted coup by her now full-on nemesis Nadashe Nohamapetan. And in the process, she has arrested both Nadashe’s mother, and nearly a third of the nobility of the Interdependency, for treason. But that hasn’t stopped the plots, and she knows that her time is running out — both the time she has before her relentless enemy succeeds in her attempts to off her, and the precious years left before the Flow collapses entirely, dooming the billions of citizens of her empire to die a slow and miserable death cut off from vital resources.

Using this wonderful setup, Scalzi does what he did in the previous two books — uses smug post-modern omniscience to entertain, and does it brilliantly. The Last Emperox reads like something Terry Pratchett might have written, had he been an American, and probably a very different type of human. The narrative moves between a tight third person, and detached authorial observations, both of which never fail to win you through sheer coolness-factor. Scalzi knows how to do humor, but he also knows how to do tension and drama. This book is light on the former, unlike the previous two, but pretty stable on the latter, as the story draws to its inevitable conclusions.

What I found pretty interesting about The Last Emperox — and really, about the entire trilogy — is that it tells two parallel stories, and it breaks some pretty well-established conventions in telling one of them. On one hand are the characters, each of them with their own POV chapters: Cardenia/Grayland, Marce Claremont, Kiva Lagos, Nadashe Nohamapetan. They all play their parts in the great drama of the collapse, and yet their stories feel largely pre-determined. Like the pieces of a puzzle that could have only ever turn out one way. These stories combine with no really big surprises, and are often resolved through Deus Ex Machina.

In a lesser story, this would have bothered me. Not here.

Because The Collapsing Empire trilogy is not the story of Cardenia and co. It is the story of — wait for it — the collapsing empire. The story of the Interdependency as a society. That is the story we have really tuned in for, eve if the personal experiences of the characters living through this catastrophe are what makes it personal enough for us to care. And that story is anything but easily resolved. Where Scalzi is not afraid to descend from the skies and fix his heroes’ lives (or end them, as the case might be), he takes no easy paths to the resolution of the grander tragedy unfolding around them.

In this sense, the trilogy ends with a bang, the conclusion meant to both give us a sense of many stories still to come, and a firm ending. This universe is wider than the Interdependency, and there are plenty of adventures to be had in it. Personally, I am more than satisfied with the The Collapsing Empire as a complete work, but I would love to return to its worlds (well, ok — habitats) in a different time or place. Meanwhile, it’s a flawless work of science fiction, and a massive recommendation from me.

Review: Bonds of Brass

I found out about Bonds of Brass by a random Twitter-induced happenstance. Someone I followed had liked a tweet by Emily Skrutskie, in which she described her upcoming YA novel. And the promise of a M/M romance, set in a space opera of imperial intrigues and starfighters, was all I needed to pre-order. Luckily, I also snagged an ARC of it at C2E2, and I devoured it in two sittings.

Bonds of Brass takes place in the distant future, in which humans have spread out into the galaxy and formed vast empires that now challenge each other. Ettian is a young pilot, training to fight for the brutal empire that destroyed the one he was born in. Having shed the past during two grueling years of living on the streets, he now only has eyes for his own future. As well as his handsome bunkmate and best friend Gal. But when an almost successful assassination attempt reveals Gal to be the heir to the empire that made him an orphan, Ettian has to decide whether his loyalties lie with the ghosts of his shattered past, or his feelings for a boy who is destined to inherit the most horrifying power in the galaxy.

I loved, loved, loved this book! Skrutskie’s effortless prose, kept in a tight first person from Ettian’s perspective, tells an exciting tale of adventure with anime undertones (coming accessorized with power suits, for extra otaku points). The action is fast-paced, the language — extremely evocative. We can smell and feel the world on every page, be it confined to the cabin of a space ship, or a vast cityscape.

But what’s even better, the novel paints a beautiful relationship between two boys, persevering despite being designed to fail in all manner of spectacular ways. Ettian’s feelings — and through his eyes, Gal’s as well — are raw and earnest, unfiltered by his telling of the story, and the adventure the two are forced into puts those to the test. In moments of intimacy, the painful ache of desire also takes on a very physical, if adorably chaste, tone. Skrutskie takes us all the way into the eyes of Ettian, as they hunger over the details in physicality and mannerism that made him fall for Gal.

Bonds of Brass is fast paced and action packed, but somehow, there is always time for character building. Both of the book’s heroes are complex, neither one falling into black-and-white stereotypes. If anything, both get up to some highly questionable shit, ethically speaking, and the ending left me with a deep sense of uncertainty as to who I was actually rooting for. On that note, it bears noting that this is only a first part of a trilogy, and it is wide open.

If I have one problem with Bonds of Brass, it is extra-literary, and personal, and has nothing to do with the book’s merits. On Emily Skrutskie’s pinned tweet, she describes the characters as “two bisexual disasters”. And I have no problem believing that Gal is bi. But, um, as a gay man, Ettian reads gay to me. This is a made-up character, and everything that exists of him is in this book. And in this book he is coded as fully focused on a single person, who happens to be male-identified. No hints are given of any interest he has ever had in other people, not even a throwaway sentence or a stray thought. The only other relationship he has, is aggressively platonic, and firmly defined by shared experiences. The only time, in fact, when he has any romantic/sexual thought not focused on Gal, it is to observe two boys making out in a cantina, and feel jealous.

I recognize that this is not a real issue, and labels aren’t terribly relevant in a made-up future space opera. And to be absolutely clear, I love reading about bisexual characters. But to me it read somewhat like “Dumbledore is gay”, as well as made me a bit sad on a personal level. It seems there are barely any gay male-identified protagonists in current SFF, confusing though that might be, considering how progressive the field has become in recent years. And not that I am that desperate for explicit identification, but it still felt nice when the novel was giving me a very clear signal that this was what I was getting. And then it seemed that the author herself did not support that signal.

This is, however, my own personal issue, and ultimately it only rubbed me the wrong way for a moment, before being drowned by the sheer awesomeness of Bonds of Brass. If royal intrigue, space warfare, planetary adventures, and boys in love are your game, then this book plays it perfectly. My only problem at present is that it isn’t even out yet (release date is 4/7), and I am already itching for the second part of the trilogy.