Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-Harmony

Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-HarmonyApollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects by Teasel E Muir-Harmony
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: science, science history
Pages: 304
Published by National Geographic Society on October 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA's Apollo missions to the moon, this narrative uses 50 key artifacts from the Smithsonian archives to tell the story of the groundbreaking space exploration program.

Bold photographs, fascinating graphics, and engaging stories commemorate the 20th century's most important space endeavor: NASA's Apollo program to reach the moon. From the lunar rover and a survival kit to space food and moon rocks, it's a carefully curated array of objects--complete with intriguing back stories and profiles of key participants.

This book showcases the historic space exploration program that landed humans on the moon, advanced the world's capabilities for space travel, and revolutionized our sense of humanity's place in the universe. Each historic accomplishment is symbolized by a different object, from a Russian stamp honoring Yuri Gagarin and plastic astronaut action figures to the Apollo 11 command module, piloted by Michael Collins as Armstrong and Aldrin made the first moonwalk, together with the monumental art inspired by these moon missions. Throughout, Apollo to the Moon also tells the story of people who made the journey possible: the heroic astronauts as well as their supporters, including President John F. Kennedy, newsman Walter Cronkite, and NASA scientists such as Margaret Hamilton.

My Review:

It is very rare for me these days to read a book in print – but for this I’m glad that I made the exception. It’s gorgeous, in its own geeky-techie-nostalgic way, and I am glad to have it on my shelves to pick up and dip into, over and over again.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this book is worth all the words, or at least all the words about the Apollo Space Program. It may not be the next best thing to being there – in space that is – but it does feel like the next best thing to being there at the National Air and Space Museum seeing these exhibits in person.

Reading these descriptions, accompanied by the carefully chosen pictures, gave this reader the feeling that I was touring the museum with the best tour guide in the universe standing at my elbow, telling me everything I wanted to know.

I kind of wish I’d had this book when I listened to Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger, because these artifacts provide the perfect images to go along with the story as it played in my ears. I think this book could serve as the “accompanying illustrations” for many books about the Apollo Program.

The explanations that go with each picture of each artifact, explaining what it is, what it was for, and most importantly, who designed or created it and who they were and what brought them to the Space Program, brings to light, and back to life, the entire decade of the “Space Race” that put men on the the surface of the Moon.

The sheer scope of the project will make any reader wonder how we managed to accomplish so much in so short a time – and what a waste it is that we not only have not managed to capitalize on those achievements, but that we seemed to have actively turned away from the belief in the power of science that made the journey possible.

Reality Rating A-: I’m tempted to call this an “Escape” rating, or at least to wish that it was. Because I feel like we should be continuing the journey to escape this planet – and we’re not. It feels as if we are about as far from that possibility as we could be, with so many people refusing to believe in science, in the real science that both fueled and was fueled by the Space Program.

This is not a book with a continuous narrative – except the one in my head that says that we should have kept reaching outward. Instead we drew back, and are now amazed that a project this big and this long managed to not only get started but actually successfully completed. And then it petered out.

If you read science fiction, or science fact, have a “thing” for the space program (as I do) or just wish that we were still reaching for that “final frontier”, this book will fill you with nostalgia and sorrow.

But at least this book, and the artifacts that it so accurately and lovingly describes, will remain to speak to the future.

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Review: An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris

Review: An Easy Death by Charlaine HarrisAn Easy Death (Gunnie Rose, #1) by Charlaine Harris
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, urban fantasy, Western
Series: Gunnie Rose #1
Pages: 336
Published by Pocket Books on July 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The beloved #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series, the inspiration for HBO’s True Blood, and the Midnight Crossroad trilogy adapted for NBC’s Midnight, Texas, has written a taut new thriller—the first in the Gunnie Rose series—centered on a young gunslinging mercenary, Lizbeth Rose.

Set in a fractured United States, in the southwestern country now known as Texoma. A world where magic is acknowledged but mistrusted, especially by a young gunslinger named Lizbeth Rose. Battered by a run across the border to Mexico Lizbeth Rose takes a job offer from a pair of Russian wizards to be their local guide and gunnie. For the wizards, Gunnie Rose has already acquired a fearsome reputation and they’re at a desperate crossroad, even if they won’t admit it. They’re searching through the small border towns near Mexico, trying to locate a low-level magic practitioner, Oleg Karkarov. The wizards believe Oleg is a direct descendant of Grigori Rasputin, and that Oleg’s blood can save the young tsar’s life.

As the trio journey through an altered America, shattered into several countries by the assassination of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression, they’re set on by enemies. It’s clear that a powerful force does not want them to succeed in their mission. Lizbeth Rose is a gunnie who has never failed a client, but her oath will test all of her skills and resolve to get them all out alive.

My Review:

There was a Red Dead Redemption soundtrack playing through the house this weekend as I was reading An Easy Death. And while Red Dead Redemption isn’t exactly the weird West that the book portrays, those homages to old-school Western TV music certainly created the right mood.

This first book in the Gunnie Rose series takes place in a dystopian, post-Apocalyptic alternate history weird, wild West. Yes, that’s kind of a mouthful. But it all fits.

The Apocalypse that this book is post of was definitely a turning point in history. As it would have been. First, the Great Depression happened. As it did. Second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his first term as President in 1932. So far, so good.

But that’s where history goes off the rails. Everything up until 1932 happened the way it happened in our history – with one notable exception. The Romanovs, the Russian Imperial family, managed to escape the 1917 Revolution. Or, at least the Tsarevich and his sisters did, eventually settling in California at the invitation of the Hearst family.

However, in 1932, history goes completely off the rails when FDR is assassinated before he can take office. Then another influenza epidemic carries off his vice-president. And the U.S. fractures into pieces.

In the ensuing economic chaos, most of the original 13 colonies petition Britain to take them back. Canada and Mexico gobble up nearby territory. And the Romanovs establish the Holy Russian Empire in California.

Some places strike out on their own, like Gunnie Rose’s own Texoma, a semi-lawful (and semi-lawless) amalgam of Texas and Oklahoma sandwiched between Mexico and New America.

That’s where our story begins. Gunnie Rose is a member of a mercenary company that takes refugees from Mexico to New America. Mexico is throwing the gringos out. (Sound twistedly familiar?)

When her entire company is killed on a run gone wrong, Gunnie rescues the human cargo, takes the survivors to their original destination, and avenges her dead friends. Now she’s out of work.

And that’s where things get really, really interesting.

Two Russians show up on her doorstep, wanting to hire her for a manhunt. They’re looking for the last known descendant of Rasputin. Yes, that Rasputin. They need his blood to keep the Tsar alive.

Rasputin, after all, really did have a treatment for the Romanov family curse – hemophilia. The Russians in this story know that cure was in his blood, just as the curse was in the Tsar’s blood.

What they don’t know is that the man they are hunting is dead – because Gunnie Rose killed him. And that he was her father. That’s not the first lie of either commission or omission that the Gunnie tells her new clients, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Escape Rating A-: This is a fantastic setup for a series. There’s so much that has gone wrong, and the way that the wrongness has taken hold makes so much sense. It reminds me a bit of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker – not for the steampunk, but for its focus on its kickass heroine, and for the way that its alternative history proceeds logically from its massive fork in the historical road.

The story has a “perils of Pauline” aspect, in that the gunnie is always jumping out of the frying pan and into yet another fire. The journey she undertakes is fraught with danger, some that she anticipates and some she can’t – because her employers are keeping just as many secrets from her as she is from them – and theirs are more dangerous.

But the “life and death on the road” aspects of the story allow the reader to become immersed slowly rather than have the entire misshapen history shoved at us at once. Gunnie and her employers are from different countries and different stations of life, so the things that they expect are vastly different than the ones that she does. That’s why they’ve hired her, because she is the expert on the things and places that they need to visit.

Admittedly, it also seems like Gunnie has way more common sense than they do. Life among the upper crust does not prepare one for dealing with common folks, especially common folks that are rightfully scared of you – if they don’t think you’re the devil incarnate.

There is magic in this world, and Gunnie’s employers are Russian wizards, whom most people outside the HRE (Holy Russian Empire) call “grigoris”. Grigoris are feared and hated, because they can do fearful and dangerous things, as well as powerful and healing things.

This is a world that I could talk about forever, because the way that history has forked and the results of the fork are endlessly fascinating. The more you read, the more you get sucked into this world, just as Gunnie gets sucked into her employers’ quest.

When the story ends, we readers feel just as “spit out” of the world as Gunnie does from the grigoris plots and counterplots. And we’re just as eager to get back in.

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Review: The Consuming Fire by John ScalziThe Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Consuming Fire
--the second thrilling novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from the Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it--unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth--or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.

My Review:

There is a description that claims that science fiction is a fantasy of political agency. That is certainly true of The Consuming Fire, and the entire Interdependency series so far. It could also be said that in this series, a significant part of the story is just which characters have fantasies that they in particular have political agency. Actually fantasies that they have considerably more political agency than they really have. Part of the story is watching at least some of those characters get disabused of that notion – and occasionally with extreme prejudice.

Another way of looking at this story is that it is all about power. There’s that old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it doesn’t quite apply here. No one really has absolute power. The person who seems on the surface to have the most, Emperox Grayland II, mostly seems to have the kind of power that the Queen of England has. That is, the power to advise, the power to encourage, and the power to warn. Her power isn’t quite that restricted, but it feels close to that – especially from her perspective.

However, the desire for absolute power does seem to corrupt absolutely. Or at least that’s the model that the Nohamapeton family seems to be following. The Countess Nohamapeton wants absolute power. She wants her family to control the throne. So far, she’s sacrificed two sons to that ambition and possibly her daughter as well. Not to mention all the other people she has arranged to have eliminated along the way. And she’s still plotting.

There’s that saying about diplomacy being war waged by other means. In this book there’s a corollary that applies – politics is civil war waged by other means. There are a lot of cutthroat politics in this one, sometimes with throats literally being cut – or shot – or wrecked.

This is also a story about inevitable change, and the many, varied and frequently counterproductive ways that people react in the face of that change. Interstellar commerce is founded on and dependent upon a poorly understood means of faster-than-light interstellar travel, called “the Flow”. The Flow has been more or less dependable for a millennium, and people have gotten very, very used to the idea that it will always be dependable.

But it isn’t. The Flow is collapsing – hence the title of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire. Flow scientists barely understand the flow well enough to predict the collapse. They certainly don’t understand it well enough to prevent the collapse.

So all that anyone in the Interdependency can do is react to the eminent collapse.Often, but not always, badly.

Of course there are a few people, and at times it seems like very few, who are doing the best they can to save as much as possible, however they can. It’s a more difficult task than it might be, because the Interdependency doesn’t seem to have many planets that can support human life. Not many actually equals just one – and it’s a planet that has already been partially cut off from the Flow.

Everyone else lives on habitats that orbit planets that happen to have been conveniently located for the Flow streams. Which is going to literally turn to hell (not) on Earth as they each get cut off from the supplies and equipment they need to maintain those high-tech habitats.

The Emperox Grayland II is one of those people who are trying to save, if not the Interdependency itself, at least as many of the people in it as is possible. But she has very few allies, and plenty of people who want to skim the cream off the status quo for as long as possible.

At the end of the book – although certainly not the end of the story – Grayland’s enemies discover that SHE is the consuming fire – a fire that will turn their petty machinations to ash in pursuit of her goal to save everyone else – or at least as much of everyone else as is possible.

Escape Rating A-: The Interdependency, at least so far, is a very political space opera. This is a government that was deliberately created to have wheels within wheels. Keeping those wheels properly greased has been the millennia long job of the Wu family. After all, creating the Interdependency and getting themselves installed as the Imperial Family was all about their wheels getting greased. They made sure that the setup also greased all the wheels of anyone who could have stood in their way at the time.

The creation of the Interdependency was a very cynical act. Effective, but cynical. The current Emperox isn’t nearly as cynical as some of predecessors, but she has plenty of motivation to do her best. And plenty of even more cynical people to keep from killing her. If you like political SF, this series so far is a lot of fun. It’s not a situation that one would remotely want to be in, but the machinations are fascinating to watch.

All in all, I have to say that The Consuming Fire is typical Scalzi. If you like the author, as I certainly do, you will eat this one up with a spoon, and then moan and complain when you reach the bottom of the bowl.

(Admittedly, if you don’t already like Scalzi, this book will probably not change your mind. It’s very typical of all the things I read him FOR. Which, if they don’t work for you, this book won’t either.)

I started this on audio, and Wil Wheaton again did an awesome job reading the story. His normal just slightly snarky tone is perfect for this author, because there is always a lot of subtle and sometimes not so subtle, snark in his work. But I wanted to see how this installment ends – and I felt the need to finish the book before we see the author in person on Thursday, so I bought the ebook and finished in an hour.

It is also hilarious to hear someone reading all of Kiva Lagos’ dialog. Kiva may possibly be the most profane character I’ve ever run across. She clearly does not know how to construct a sentence without at least one f-bomb in it. Her lines are funny to read, but almost brutal – and appropriately so – when read.

The Consuming Fire is not the place to start this series. The setup of the Flow and the way that the Interdependency interdepends upon it is all set up in the first book, The Collapsing Empire. And that’s also where we get introduced to all of the characters that make this story so much fun.

This is also, thank goodness, not the place where this story ends. There will be at least one more book. Because things are always darkest just before they turn completely black – and they haven’t turned completely black yet.

I’ll be over here, waiting with the proverbial bated breath, until they do. Hopefully next year, in the very tentatively titled The Last Emperox.

Review: Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Whitehouse

Review: Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna WhitehouseMycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anna Waterhouse
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 336
Published by Titan Books on October 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The new novel by NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, starring brothers Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes.

Now a force to be reckoned with in the War Office, the young Mycroft Holmes is growing his network of contacts and influence, although not always in a manner that pleases his closest friend, Cyrus Douglas. A Trinidadian of African descent, Douglas has opened a home for orphaned children, while still running his successful import business.

When a ship carrying a cargo in which Douglas was heavily invested runs aground on the Dorset coast, Mycroft convinces his brother Sherlock to offer his services at the orphanage while Douglas travels to see what can be salvaged. Sherlock finds himself surprisingly at home among the street urchins, but is alarmed to discover that two boys show signs of drug addiction. Meanwhile Douglas also finds evidence of opium use on two dead sailors, and it becomes clear to Mycroft that the vile trade is on the ascent once again.

Travelling to China on the trail of the drug business, Mycroft and Douglas discover that there are many in high places willing to make a profit from the misery of others. Their opponents are powerful, and the cost of stemming the deadly tide of opium is likely to be high...

My Review:

Combine “portrait of the detective as a young truant” with “portrait of the spider at the heart of the British government as a young bureaucrat” and you get a couple of the parts of Mycroft and Sherlock.

This is also a story where we begin to see our heroes becoming the people that we know they will become. Not merely Sherlock the intelligent, intolerant, sociopathic detective, but also Mycroft as the rather bloated and nearly agoraphobic spider at the heart of the government’s web – a web that he himself will spin in the decades to come.

And part of what makes this work, both the first book in the series, Mycroft Holmes, and this latest, is that the authors tell a story about these much-beloved brothers that is new to our eyes while still fitting into the canon that we already know – the world that they will eventually inhabit but that for them is yet to come.

But this story is a followup to the authors’ Mycroft Holmes – a book that was published in 2015 but that I didn’t get around to until earlier this year. I enjoyed it so much that I actually bought Mycroft and Sherlock when it came out – there were no ARCs and I really wanted to see what happened next.

Not that we don’t know what happens eventually to the Holmes Brothers, but I wanted to see the next steps that this story would take to get from here to there.

This is both a sequel and not. The events of the first book do have consequences in this one, but not the case itself. And it’s fascinating and if you enjoy Holmes’ pastiches I definitely recommend it.

Those consequences are rather surprising – because they revolve around the health of the protagonists and not further involvement in that particular case. At the end of the first story Douglas survived a near-fatal gunshot wound, resulting in a couple of slugs sitting uncomfortably near his heart. For the man of action that he has been, his need to either restrict his actions or attempt to protect his vulnerability is not easy.

Mycroft is just not feeling well – surprisingly unwell for a healthy young man in his mid-20s. That last messy case included an untreated bout of malaria, resulting in a weakened heart. So both Mycroft and his friend Douglas suffer from similar ailments, albeit from different causes.

And with different results. Mycroft (and Sherlock) both know about Douglas’ condition. But Mycroft, secret-keeper that he is, keeps his condition to himself – even when it would behoove him to reveal it. He can’t stand to admit to a weakness – particularly when he feels that his work is not yet done.

But his reticence adds to the distance in his relationship with his brother -a distance that will continue to have consequences for the rest of their lives.

There is a case here, and it’s a typical Holmesian farrago of convoluted means and hidden motives, with the addition of the right hand (in this case Mycroft) not knowing what the left hand (in this case Sherlock) is doing – and vice versa. With nearly fatal results – multiple times.

It is also a case where the story explores conditions at the time. As the saying goes, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” The heart of this case is the drug trade – which is surprisingly legal for the most part yet still has aspects that are hidden in dark shadows.

But the soul of the case is about family, and the infinite number of ways in which trying to help can go oh so terribly wrong.

Escape Rating A-: I liked this every bit as much as the first book. Which was a lot. This was certainly another case of right book, right time. I was just in the mood for more Holmes (I have another one in the queue as well) but this was just right.

Part of what makes these two books so good is the addition of Cyrus Douglas. For the most part, the original canon dealt with the Victorian era from an upper-middle class white point of view. The addition of Douglas as a main character forces Mycroft and Sherlock to deal with the parts of the world that men of their race and class generally ignored.

At the same time, Douglas also serves as the adult in the room. In his mid-40s by this point in the story, he has a wealth of real-life experience – and the scars to go with it – that the Holmes boys lack. Douglas can be a voice of reason that makes the brothers stop and think for a minute – or at least make Mycroft stop and think for a minute – in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Both of the Holmes are a bit melodramatic at this point in their lives. We never think of them as young because they were not in the canon, but in these stories, with Mycroft in his mid-20s and Sherlock in his late teens, they are very young indeed – and it shows in their actions as well as their thought-processes.

At the same time, we are able to see the elements of what will become their known personas beginning to gel. Mycroft is beginning to retreat from the wider world, becoming more focused on his governmental duties and on the forces that only he can see. While this case brings him temporarily out of himself, we can also see that it is temporary.

Sherlock’s methods are clearly under development in this case, but his personality is nearly set. And we see both happen as he learns how to handle disguises and starts the seeds that will become the Irregulars while at the same time he is still wearing his heart on his sleeve – and learning to hide it.

If you want to find yourself up to the neck in the Victorian era and several steps behind two of the most famous detectives in history, this book is a really fun read. I hope there will be more!

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera LewisWhen the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 240
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Marjorie Herrera Lewis’s debut historical novel the inspiring true story of high school teacher Tylene Wilson—a woman who surprises everyone as she breaks with tradition to become the first high school football coach in Texas—comes to life.

"A wonderfully touching and beautiful story…Tylene makes me laugh, cry, and cheer for her in ways I have not done in a long time.”—Diane Les Bocquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild  

It's a man's game, until now...Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.

Now, the war has changed everything.  Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.

Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.           

Based on a true story, When the Men Were Gone is a powerful and vibrant novel of perseverance and personal courage.

My Review:

This is an absolute awesome story – and it is all the better for being based on a true one. It also has a surprising amount of resonance. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tylene Wilson was a real person. She really did coach men’s football in Brownwood Texas during World War II, as the title says, when all the men were gone. One of the differences between the fictional Tylene and the factual Tylene was that the real Tylene coached college football, not high school.

But, as has so often happened, the real Tylene’s achievements, like so many women’s achievements, has been lost to history – and that’s in the spite of the fact that WW2 is still in living memory – albeit for a decreasing number of people. The author of this book was inspired by the case of a real, 21st century woman who is following in Tylene’s fading footsteps, coaching men’s college football.

Without nearly enough historical documentation, the author was forced to fictionalize Tylene’s achievement – and the struggles that she went through to achieve it. The fictionalized version of her story is compelling AND has plenty of resonance with today.

Tylene knows football. And she knows it really, really well. Her dad taught her, both how to play and how to analyze plays. Not because he had a not-to-secret yearning for a son, but because Tylene had rickets as a child. The cure for rickets is Vitamin D, most easily found in good old sunshine.

Girls didn’t play a lot outside, even in small-town Texas, in the early 20th century. But boys certainly did. So Dad learning football and baseball and any other sport or activity that would make his little girl eager to get out into the sunshine – and get well and stay well. It worked.

And it gave Tylene a lifelong love of the sport.

World War II was a period when all the young men went to war – and all the young women went into the factories. I have my parents’ high school annuals from that period, and the teachers all had, as the saying went at the time, “one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel”. There were no young teachers. It is easy to imagine that in a small town like Brownwood, there were no young men, period, who were not either medically ineligible (and therefore would have been medically ineligible to have played football) or had served and been invalided out.

There do seem to be plenty of older men. But just because someone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the best of them doesn’t mean that they have any of the actual knowledge required to coach a real team, even a high school team. The lack of real knowledge may stop them from volunteering to coach or being qualified to do so. Of course it does not stop them from complaining that a woman can’t possibly know enough to coach – even if she does.

Her situation feels real – only because it was. What adds to the poignancy is that this story takes place in the fall of 1944. She wouldn’t have known it the time, but her desire to keep the high school football program going for one more year would save the lives of those boys who would have enlisted instead of hanging around tiny Brownwood. She just wanted to give them one more year of adolescence before they went to war. She probably saved their lives.

But the forces arrayed against her, while couched in the even more overt misogyny of the mid-century, sound all too similar to the voices that every 21st century woman has heard in her life about why women are unsuited to this, that, or the other thing because whatever it is is supposed to be the province of men.

All those men sound shrill and frightened and very, very real. And they haven’t changed a bit in all the years since.

Escape Rating A-: This was an incredible book – and a very fast read. This is also one of those times when I wish there had been just a bit more of the story. While it does end on a paradoxically high note, I wanted more. At least an epilog where we get to find out how the season went and witness the announcement of the end of the war and the impact on the school, students and town. (Yes, I know it’s fiction. I still wanted more closure.)

Which does not mean that I did not enjoy the book, because I certainly did. And the ending, while it felt a bit premature, was definitely at a high point. Not because her team won the game, but because she won the team – and, it seemed, the town.

But it’s the chorus of naysayers that stick with me, because it all sounded so damn familiar.

Tylene faced endless amounts of sexual harassment – from every side – all the time. The opposing coach for her team’s season opening game was ready to forfeit. He was convinced that it would be less embarrassing for his team to forfeit the game and take a loss than it would have been to play the game and win in a rout. He never considered that it would be a fair and close game, win or lose. He couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly coach that well, or that a team would support a woman coach that well.

While her husband was supportive, he was also very, very shaken. There were points when the negativity and the pressure were so intense that he also wanted her to give in and give up. His best friend and the mainstay of his business refused to do business with him after Tylene became the coach. The school board held a special meeting to remove her from the job – and no one in town told her about the meeting in advance.

And any woman who does not hear the echoes of those scared, shrill male voices rising against Tylene shouting in today’s news hasn’t been paying attention. That kept me riveted to the book from beginning to end – and haunts me still.

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Review: The Arrows of the Heart by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Arrows of the Heart by Jeffe KennedyThe Arrows of the Heart (The Uncharted Realms #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #4
Pages: 297
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on October 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Karyn af Hardie is on her own, for the first time in her life. While all around her brace for war with Karyn’s former homeland, the Empire of Dasnaria, all Karyn really wants is to find a husband who will care for her. After all, she gave up everything for the chance at a normal family life with love and children. She has no way of supporting herself and the only thing of value she has to offer is her virginity. The last thing she’ll do is squander that on the flirtatious shapeshifter Zyr.

Zyr is fascinated by the golden-haired and exotic Karyn—but not enough to put up with all of her mossback rules. She’d be considerably happier, in his opinion for some good bouts of healthy sex. Still, that’s not his problem and he has plenty that is. His sister Zynda has disappeared, possibly never to return, leaving him with a mission to use the mysterious map-sticks to find ancient n’Andana and recruit help for a war they seem doomed to lose to otherwise.

Suspected as a Dasnarian spy, Karyn can’t stay in Annfwn while the defense is planned—so she’s sent with Zyr to assist on his desperate quest. If they can keep from killing each other, Karyn and Zyr might just discover they hold more than a map to saving the world.

My Review:

As our story begins in this fourth book in the Uncharted Realms series, Karyn of Hardie, the exiled former future Empress of Dasnaria, is adrift among the shape shifting Tala in Annfwyn – trying to figure out where she belongs and looking for a purpose to replace everything she left behind.

Meanwhile clinging to the rules and restrictions of her past that marked her as a pampered, protected, caged upper-class woman in Dasnaria.

Considering that the Tala have very few rules about behavior of any kind (I don’t think they have much past Wheaton’s Law), almost no respect for rank and very little consideration of privilege of any kind, Karyn is as completely at sea as anyone could be on dry land.

To add to her complete and utter confusion, she is being romantically pursued by Tyr, who would be a kind of prince where she came from, but in Annfwyn is just another Tala. And a seemingly feckless one at that.

Tyr has plenty of power, but he’s been a bit flighty for most of his life. Particularly when it comes to sexual conquests – not that the Tala have anything like the taboos and prohibitions that Karyn is used to. But Tyr has been fairly free with his favors for most of his life – while Karyn risked literally everything for the possibility of true love, real romance, permanence and eventually children.

She’s looking for normal, while Tyr seems to be looking for a good time. Unfortunately for both of them, life in the now Thirteen Kingdoms is anything but normal. Annfwyn and the rest of the Kingdoms are preparing for war. War with the evil Deyrr, and war with Karyn’s former home – Dasnaria.

The Tala are sorcerers whose power is based on life magic. The Deyrr are as far opposite as can be imagined. To call them necromancers is possibly an insult to necromancers. They’re really that bad.

But the Queen of the Tala has foreseen that the war is at a crossroads. In order for there to be even the possibility of victory, she must send Karyn and Tyr, together, into the heart of darkness. And hope against hope that Karyn makes the hard choice one more time.

Escape Rating A-: Like nearly all of the books in the Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series, this book is absolutely awesomesauce. But also like many of the books in this series, and the spinoff Chronicles of Dasnaria series, it is not for the faint of heart. The treatment of women in Dasnaria is enough to give any woman flashbacks of one kind or another. And the Deryrr seem to worship evil as well as death. Anytime they show up, it makes for very hard reading. Necessary to the story, but hard.

This story is the fourth book in the Uncharted Realms series, which makes it the seventh in the combined series. That’s a lot of backstory. And while you don’t HAVE to have read the whole thing, if you enjoy epic fantasy with romance blended in, the series is definitely worth a read. Howsomever, the action in this particular entry is a direct followup from its two immediate predecessors in the series, The Edge of the Blade and The Shift of the Tide. How Karyn ended up in Annfwyn is a result of events in The Edge of the Blade, while Tyr’s emotional state follows from his sister’s actions in The Shift of the Tide. Neither begins this story in a good place.

However, I found Karyn’s actions and reactions much easier to understand after reading the Chronicles of Dasnaria, particularly the first book Prisoner of the Crown. In that story, we see how a woman very similar to Karyn was raised, or perhaps it should be phrased as brainwashed or conditioned. Having followed Jenna’s journey it’s much easier to understand why Karyn acts the way she does to the lack of strictures in Tala society.

And that’s what makes The Arrows of the Heart so much Karyn’s story. She’s the butterfly that has broken out of its chrysalis. And it hurts. So she has to decide whether to try her wings or retreat back into her “safe” little shell. Freedom is hard, and the choices she has to keep making to retain it are harder still. That’s what makes her such a powerful heroine.

One final note – I keep conflating this title with Mercedes Lackey’s debut fantasy, Arrows of the Queen. After having finished The Arrows of the Heart, that conflation is not entirely wrong. Although this book, is deeper and darker – as it should be. Lackey’s book was aimed at a young adult audience, while The Arrows of the Heart, and the entire Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series is definitely for adults.

But the part about a brave heroine being on a difficult mission for the Queen – well that’s true in both stories. And wonderfully so.

Review: Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Rebel Hard by Nalini SinghRebel Hard (Hard Play, #2) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Hard Play #2
Pages: 409
Published by TKA Distribution on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh continues her Hard Play series with a sweet, sexy romance featuring big, fat, OTT weddings, a meddling grandma, and a too-serious hero who needs to be unbuttoned…

Nayna Sharma agreed to an arranged marriage in the hope it would heal the fractures in her beloved family… only to realize too late that a traditional marriage is her personal nightmare. Panicked, she throws caution to the winds, puts on the tiniest dress she can find, and ends up in the arms of a tall, rough-edged hunk of a man who has abs of steel—and who she manages to mortally insult between one kiss and the next.

Abandoned as a child, then adopted into a loving family, Raj Sen believes in tradition, in continuity. Some might call him stiff and old-fashioned, but he knows what he wants—and it’s a life defined by rules… yet he can’t stop thinking about the infuriating and sexy woman who kissed him in the moonlight then disappeared. When his parents spring an introduction on him, the last woman he expects is her. Beautiful. Maddening. A rulebreaker in the making.

He’s all wrong for her. She’s all wrong for him. And love is about to make rebels of them both.

My Review:

The Hard Play series is a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series, linked by my and the rest of the Book Pushers favorite alpha male, Gabriel Bishop, better known as T-Rex. But you certainly don’t have to read Rock Kiss or even Gabriel’s book, Rock Hard to get right into Rebel Hard.

As I said, this series is a prequel, so those events haven’t happened yet. However, the series is absolutely marvelous!

Rebel Hard is the second book in the Hard Play series, after last year’s Cherish Hard. Again, absolutely awesome. But you really don’t need to read Cherish Hard to get into Rebel Hard, because these two stories are happening in parallel.

Isa, the heroine of Cherish Hard and Nayna, the heroine of Rebel Hard, are besties. Really, really solid besties and have been forever. Both stories begin at the same time and place, the party where Isa meets Sailor, and where Nayna meets Raj. And it both cases it’s at least lust at first sight, if not something more.

In Cherish Hard, we saw what transpired between Isa and Sailor after this fateful party. Now it’s Nayna’s turn. And while her story, both before and after the party is completely different, both do end in the same place.

Rebel Hard isn’t really a story about rebellion, at least not in a big way. But it is about the kind of small rebellions that happen in everyday lives. And that’s true even though the chapter headings of Rebel Hard reflect the way that Nayna’s life seems to be taking a turn straight into a Bollywood melodrama.

This is, in the end, the story of Nayna’s rebellion. She begins the story as her parents’ “perfect” and perfectly reliable daughter. Nayna has suppressed her own desires, and had them suppressed for her, in the wake of her older sister’s very big rebellion – where she married someone completely unsuitable, ran away from home, and eventually got divorced.

In their fairly traditional Indian family, Maddie went pretty far off the rails – and it seems that Nayna is the one that was punished for it, with her movements and teenage life claustrophobically restricted by their frightened parents. Now Maddie is back, and she and Nayna are both adults, but Nayna is still letting her parents control her life while Maddie seems to get away with everything.

Nayna feels resentful and taken for granted – and she feels the walls of her world closing in. She had agreed to let her parents arrange a marriage for her, but now that the process is underway Nayna feels like her cage door is closing. That the candidates she meets turn out to be self-absorbed douchebags probably isn’t helping.

So she and Isa break out one night, and go to what to them seems like a fairly wild party – not that it actually is. But they are among strangers, and for one night they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. They are free from the different but equally restrictive expectations they live with.

And Nayna, intending to take a little bitty walk on the wild side, meets Raj, and discovers a part of her that wants to be wild – but only with him.

Of course he turns out to be the next candidate her parents introduce her to. Because that’s the way these stories always work. Just as she’s finally figured out that as much as she loves her parents, and as much as they love her, she has to experience life on her own terms before she gets married. And that she wants to marry someone who sees the real her, whoever that turns out to be – even though her parents don’t.

The story here is the tug of war, both within and between Nayna and Raj, and with all of the conflicting sets of expectations set up by not merely the two of them, but between both of their close, loving and hyper-involved families.

Everyone wants what’s best for everyone else. But in the end only Nayna and Raj can make that decision – no matter how much pressure is put on them, from each and every side.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a long time to get into this one – longer than usual for one of Nalini Singh’s books. In retrospect, I don’t think it was the fault of the book. I just wasn’t in the mood for a romance for several days.

Once I got into it, it turned out to be a breathlessly fast read, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Part of what made this story so interesting was that it is steeped in the Indian expat culture as it is lived in New Zealand – the setting from which the author herself springs. The families are very close-knit, as is the entire community. The interconnectedness of family and community is something that used to be a lot more common. People used to rely on not just their marital family but also their birth family and their extended family all their lives, and that’s something that doesn’t happen in the wider Western society as much anymore.

Nayna is a great character through which to portray both how lovely that can be and equally how smothering it can be. At the same time, the recognition that she has caught herself in her own trap is familiar no matter what culture one comes from. She has become the “good” daughter because her sister was the “bad” daughter, so she feels that she will only be loved if she is perfect. And she is afraid of what will happen if she isn’t.

Her relationship with Raj is fraught, not because there is anything wrong with him, but because she doesn’t want it to seem like she has given into expectations, and she is afraid that she will give into his. Not that she doesn’t fall for him, and very much vice versa, but he has always claimed that he wants a traditional wife, and Nayna doesn’t want to be that. Not that she doesn’t want to be a wife, she just doesn’t want to be that kind of wife. They have to work hard, both with and against all the various family pressures, to figure out a way to be together that satisfies what they both want and need – not just during the first flush of love, but for always.

Their sometimes desperate realism about what will and won’t work for each of them is what makes this story sing. And dance. Definitely dance.

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (Legion, #1-3) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1-3
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

My Review:

I’ve already read (actually had read to me) the first two Legion books, Legion and Skin Deep. And I absolutely loved both of them. So…when this book popped up on Edelweiss, and it included the final Legion book, Lies of the Beholder, I just had to grab it.

Upon opening this one, I dove right into Lies of the Beholder. So if you are interested in my thoughts on the first two books, check out my reviews of Legion and Skin Deep here at Reading Reality.

I’m going to concentrate on Lies of the Beholder. But I can do that because I’ve already read the first two. The Legion series turns out to be one long story, just broken into three parts. You really need to read the whole thing to get the point at the end. Which, by the way, is marvelous and absolutely fitting.

Also just a bit of a mind screw, but then, so is the entire life of Stephen Leeds.

What makes Stephen Leeds so interesting is the way that his mind works. It’s a very busy, and well-populated, place.

He is definitely a genius. The question is whether or not he’s insane. It’s all because of his rather unique way of handling what would otherwise be an out-of-control genius. Leeds absorbs everything he hears, everything he sees.

I think there’s a metaphor for our current age of information glut in there someplace.

The problem for Leeds is processing and synthesis. There is just so much input, all the time, that he can’t control it all enough for it to make sense, or for him to function. Too often, it felt like he was experiencing hallucinations as every piece of data everywhere he went needed to get his attention.

A woman named Sandra taught him a way out the labyrinth. She taught him to take all the input and siphon it off into “aspects”. Those aspects function as independent identities within Leeds’ mind. He sees them as individual people, and to him they have personalities and life histories. They also contain all his knowledge in a particular area. The control the massive amounts of data flowing into his brain and he provides the synthesis.

But when he loses one, he loses all the knowledge that was packed into that aspect. A gaping hole opens in his mind, and he’s temporarily even more lost than normal.

As Lies of the Beholder opens, he’s losing his aspects. Some of them just leave, but some of them go insane and kill some of the others. It feels like he’s losing bits of himself – only because he is.

In the midst of his own chaos, Leeds receives a message from the long-missing Sandra. It’s a one word text message – HELP!

He can’t resist. Not only does he desperately want to help the only woman who has ever really understood him, the only one he’s ever loved, but he feels “beholden” to her – he owes her for providing him with the means to control his mind – even if that method is now breaking down.

In searching for Sandra, finding out what’s happened to her, Leeds is forced to rely on himself, and to find the beauty in his own breakdown. He’s offered what feels like a terrible choice, to either let go of everything that makes him who he is, or to try to forge a new way to live, and cope, alone.

This is one of those stories where both the journey and the destination are the point – and it’s a sharp one.

Escape Rating A-: This series is awesome. Also relatively short and entirely complete. As it is all told from Stephen Leeds first-person perspective, it also makes a great audiobook. I listened to the first two and read the final book because I just couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out.

As I said, this does turn out to be one story divided into three parts, so you do need to read it all. But it is so worth it. And I say that even though Leeds’ flails around a bit more than usual in this final entry.

A lot of what makes this series so fascinating is the character of Stephen Leeds. He thinks he’s sane, but that some of his aspects are the ones who are crazy. He claims that he is always aware that the aspects are just hallucinations, but that some of the aspects aren’t willing to admit that to themselves.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions.

As a reader, it is easy to get sucked into Leeds’ perspective. The aspects certainly all feel like separate individuals – and often quite interesting individuals in their own right. Many of them are very likeable (particularly Tobias, Ivy and J.C. – Leeds’ own favorites). It would be fun to read their individual backstories and see more from their perspectives. And yes, they do all have backstories and they certainly have individual perspectives on events – or so it seems.

But where the other two stories were both interesting cases that Leeds’ has to solve, they were also stories about him coping with the world in a way that was comfortable for him but didn’t make him grow. Looking back, in those stories he is so comfortable with the life that he has arranged for himself that he doesn’t need to grow or change. While he doesn’t completely love his life as it is, it has certainly become comfortable and easy for him.

This is a story about growth and change, because the structure breaks down and his support system gets kicked out from under him. He has to change, adapt and find a new way forward. Or stop altogether.

That he has the option of becoming, in effect, a lotus-eater and living completely in a dream world makes his choice all the more stark. Because he has been living somewhat in a dream world for years – just one of his own making. When the choice of absolutes is forced upon him, he has to kick out his own supports and live in the real world.

Or does he? His ultimate solution will blow the reader’s mind. It’s one of those endings that makes you rethink the whole story from the very beginning. And makes you want to start the series all over again.

Joint Review: All Systems Red / Artificial Condition / Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #1
Pages: 144
Published by Tor.com on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

 

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #2
Pages: 158
Published by Tor.com on May 8th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

 

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #3
Pages: 158
Published by Tor.com on August 7th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Goodreads

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

Our Review:

Marlene: I read the first three Murderbot books in a binge one day. I was looking for something a bit different, I was still very much on an SF kick after WorldCon, and I thought, “what the hell, they’re short”. I did not expect to gobble them up one right after the other, and now they are all in a heap in my head, hence the multiple book review. That Galen had read them all in a heap just a couple of days before had absolutely no influence whatsoever on my decision to take the plunge. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Galen: I blame, of course, thousands of people, starting first with Hugo Gernsback. The Murderbot series hadn’t really impinged on my consciousness prior to the the Tor.com/TorBooks upcoming releases panel at WorldCon, where they mentioned the upcoming release of Exit Strategy (which Marlene and I also read; review will come closer to its publication). What sealed the deal, however, was seeing Martha Wells walking up to the stage the night of the Hugo Award ceremony to accept a rocket for All Systems Red. Hundreds of Hugo voters can’t be wrong, right? Well sometimes… but not that day!

Marlene: According to Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos, the voters get it wrong about 30% of the time – but this definitely wasn’t one of those times.

This story is told in the first person singular, in Murderbot’s very singular voice. I’m going to use “it” to refer to Murderbot, because Murderbot has no gender – and is very specific on multiple occasions that it doesn’t need one, doesn’t want one, and wouldn’t have one at gunpoint. As a being who has been forced to observe human behavior in all its messy minutiae for days of tedium upon end, Murderbot sees gender as one of our many, many useless attributes.

Galen: Murderbot’s voice carries the series. But who is Murderbot? It is a SecUnit: a construct combining machine parts and human-derived tissues with both a human nervous system and artificial intelligence. Oh, and lots of built-in weapons — and security protocols and expertise bar none. (One of the reasons Murderbot is not a far-future Pinocchio? It rightly judges that most humans are pretty rubbish as security units.)

In other words, SecUnits are dangerous and most humans find them unnerving. Like many SecUnits, Murderbot gets rented out by the corporation that owns it to provide security; in Muderbot’s case, for a small planetary survey team — and one SecUnit suffices. What keeps SecUnits from running amok? A governor unit… which Murderbot has disabled, making it its own construct. Freeing it to…. watch hours and hours of bad sci fi soap operas when it’s not on duty.

Marlene: Murderbot may be a bit more “human” than it would like to think. Spending its downtime watching (and re-watching) bad sci fi soap operas strikes this reader as a sign of the humanity that Murderbot would disavow rather strenuously.

But speaking of Murderbot, it named itself that. SecUnits don’t have individual names, and if they have individual numbers or unit designations we don’t see that. By hacking its governor unit, Murderbot has given itself free will, although it could be argued that it would have needed at least some free will to decide to hack its governor unit in the first place!

However, it knows that if anyone in authority discovers its hack, it will be forcibly re-governed – or just stripped for parts. So part of its internal commentary is about its necessity to keep its freedom a secret at all costs – and the way that freedom conflicts with its programming to keep its clients alive.

As Galen said above, Murderbot is certain that humans are rubbish as security units. In fact, it thinks humans are rubbish at dealing with security issues at all. It’s always seen a part of its job as doing its best to prevent its human clients from doing stupid things and endangering themselves against its instructions. Now that it has free will, it has to constantly weigh how active it should be in preventing that stupidity.

The more I talk about Murderbot’s free will, the more it reminds me of Shale the golem in Dragon Age Origins, who also has unexpected free will after her (she does discover she has gender after all) controller rod is irretrievably broken. Without those years of watching bad broadcast melodrama, Shale has much less feeling for the other members of her party than Murderbot does for at least some of its clients. Just as TV has often been used by immigrants to learn the language of their new country, Murderbot has also used entertainment media to learn the language of what is effectively its new country, the world of self-willed, independent-thinking augmented humans. Murderbot is just a bit more augmented than most.

But we should probably get back to the books themselves, shouldn’t we?

Galen: As I mentioned, in All Systems Red Murderbot finds itself on a contract to provide security for the PreservationAux team doing a planetary survey. While some of the local wildlife are indeed looking for a light lunch of Dr. Mensah and her folks, the team finds itself with a bigger problem: another team wants Mensah’s group off the planet… and doesn’t necessarily care how. Keeping the team alive and exposing their antagonists occupies most of the plot. Along the way, Murderbot has to make some disclosures, work on dealing with humans outside the confines of soap opera plots, and at the end, choose its freedom. Why the PreservationAux team found itself is such hot water is the central mystery of the rest of the Murderbot Diaries sequence.

In Artificial Conditions, Murderbot learns how to simulate human behavior better under the tutelage of a cargo starship and seeks to find the answer to another mystery: why, apparently, prior to the events of All Systems Red, did it run amok and kill the group of miners it was supposed to protect? Along the way, it finds itself helping yet another group of humans with no clue about proper security… or rather, it chose to, somewhat to its surprise.

In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot travels onward to investigate the original mystery: what was so important that PreservationAux couldn’t be allowed to see? It ends up on a terraforming station that was abandoned, and finds itself protecting yet another group of hapless humans who are also investigating the mystery. This time, Murderbot does have the help of human security specialists… though that is a decidedly mixed blessing. This culminates in a decision to return… home?… and leads us to the final novella (so far) in this sequence, Exit Strategy, which we’ll review later this year.

Marlene: Exit Strategy may be the current final novella in the Murderbot Diaries, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the ending. I could be wrong, but I hope I’m not.

The story, at least so far, seems to be Murderbot’s journey towards independent personhood. I would compare him to Pinocchio by way of Data, but Data actually does want to be “real boy”, or at least a much closer facsimile than he is at the beginning of Star Trek Next Gen.

Murderbot wants to be itself. It has zero desire to be human. After all, it thinks humans are generally stupid – and it’s generally right on that subject. But it does want to be independent, while at the same it wants purpose, and purpose keeps leading it to more involvement with humans. They need it. One of the truths that it is hesitantly reaching towards is that it needs them.

As uncomfortable as humans, their messy emotions, and Murderbot’s even more emotionally messy reactions to them make it feel, it can’t seem to stay away. It particularly can’t manage to stay away from the PreservationAux crew. They, with one exception, treat Murderbot as a person. Not a human person, but a person with its own needs, wants, desires and oh yes, feelings. Even if Murderbot distances itself as far as it can from dealing with those feelings, first by immersing itself in those terrible SF soap operas, and then by taking itself as far away as possible.

It turns out that even rogue SecUnits can manage to paddle up the river DeNial if they try hard enough – and Murderbot is certainly trying.

Galen: One of the themes of the Murderbot Diaries is duty. After All Systems Red, Murderbot could have chosen to lose itself in soap operas, as it is certainly a good enough security systems hacker to stay off the radar indefinitely. However, it doesn’t do that: it has questions it needs answered. Moreover, although it really would rather not, it continues to interact and protect the humans it runs across. Often that interaction is at a remove—if you can interface with every camera in the room, you don’t need to look someone in the eye—but it happens, and Murderbot gets better at it as the novellas progress. And—horrors—Murderbot just might find family, of a sorts. But on its own terms, as its own being.

Marlene: Murderbot does, indeed, have lots and lots of questions – and is willing to stick itself in harm’s way to get them answered. It can’t seem to resist helping the humans it comes across, even as it snarks about their behavior, bodily functions, and general ineptitude. Their emotions make it uncomfortable, but it has a difficult time within itself dealing with that discomfort. Looking people in the eye forces it to admit that there is an “I”, and that’s not something it is quite ready to face. But it might. Someday.

Galen’s Escape Rating A-: The Murderbot Diaries depend on the strength of Murderbot’s voice. Fortunately, it’s up to the task: a human/artificial construct with anxiety and a sense of snark that’s never unbearing, and has learned from its soap operas how to tell a good yarn.

Marlene’s Escape Rating A-: Galen is correct that the Murderbot Diaries depend on Murderbot’s voice, not just its storytelling ability, but also its strengths, its weaknesses and in the end, its, well, humanity for lack of a better term. At times, Murderbot seems like a cross between an urban fantasy or noir snarky detective and Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At times, it can come across as a child savant, in that it knows so much about hacking and security and so little about human emotions or how to cope with its own. Or even admit to its own. Its growth as a person from the All Systems Red to Rogue Protocol is fascinating to watch – and continues apace in Exit Strategy.

I hope Murderbot’s diaries continue.

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe KennedyExile of the Seas (The Chronicles of Dasnaria #2) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #2
Pages: 420
Published by Rebel Base Books on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Around the shifting borders of the Twelve Kingdoms, trade and conflict, danger and adventure put every traveler on guard . . . but some have everything to lose.

ESCAPEDOnce she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.

Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.

But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .

My Review:

Exile of the Seas is a middle book that absolutely does not have even a trace of middle-book syndrome. And that’s marvelous.

The Chronicles of Dasnaria are a prequel/sidequel to the author’s absolutely awesomesauce Twelve Kingdoms series. As a prequel it is not required to have read the Twelve Kingdoms before beginning this series As the Chronicles of Dasnaria have continued we have met some of the characters who will be major players in the Twelve Kingdoms, but it hasn’t happened yet, as they are all still children, or at least teenagers, at this point in their stories.

However, it is crucial – albeit heartrending, that one read the first book in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, Prisoner of the Crown, before essaying into Exile of the Seas. The Chronicles of Dasnaria, are the story of former Crown Princess Jenna of Dasnaria. In order to appreciate where she finds herself at the beginning of Exile of the Seas, and why she begins her transformation from Princess Jenna to Priestess Ivariel, it is necessary to see where she came from and why she fled. And definitely what she is fleeing from.

Her courage often feels of the one step forward, two steps back variety, but considering the events of Prisoner of the Crown, one is constantly amazed that she found that courage AT ALL, let alone enough of it to not merely leave but to defy every expectation that her society has of women in general or herself in particular.

Like Prisoner of the Crown, this feels like a story about becoming. In the first book, Jenna was mostly a victim, over and over and over. What saved the whole book from being merely a litany of despair and disaster was the ending, where Jenna escapes with the help of her brother Harlan.

But escape is not enough. The women of the seraglio are hothouse flowers, pets and playthings, with no tools or experience to allow them to live outside its walls. Jenna may be physically out, but mentally she has not yet begun to escape its confines. A free woman anywhere else in her world has many more options than she ever believed were possible. This is the story of her learning to grasp for at least some of those options.

The story begins with a fortuitous meeting. Or possibly a goddess-ordained one. Aboard the ship Robin, bound for anywhere away from Dasnaria, the frightened and ignorant Jenna crosses paths with Kaja, a priestess of Danu. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kaja is on her way to the court of the Twelve Kingdoms to guard the Queen and train her daughter Ursula in the way of the warrior. But Kaja feels that her goddess has led her to Jenna, to provide Jenna with aid in her quest to escape Dasnaria – or to at least be ready for it to return and attempt to reclaim her.

Under Kaja’s brief but extremely effective tutelage, Jenna becomes Ivariel, and takes the first steps on the road to becoming a warrior priestess of Danu. She takes vows of both silence and chastity – to cover both her accent and her complete unwillingness – or inability – to cope with anyone’s sexuality, including her own.

As Kaja makes her way to her destiny, Jenna, now Ivariel, lets the goddess guide her steps. Steps that take her far, far, away from Dasnaria, to a place where “seeing the elephant” is not just a metaphor.

But in keeping with that metaphor, Ivariel gains experience of her world at significant cost – but not only to herself.

Escape Rating A-: I didn’t pick up on that resonance, between seeing the elephants and “seeing the elephant” until just now. Jenna has always had a dream of seeing elephants – its a dream she was even punished for in the seraglio. Women in Dasnaria don’t get to see much of anything, and certainly not the elephants that live in far away places.

“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century Americanism that refers to gaining experience at great cost, and was often used in conjunction with serving in the Mexican-American War or the Civil War, or heading west on one of the great stagecoach drives, or of participating in the Gold Rush.

All times and places where a lot of people got a whole lot of experience through a whole lot of hardship, peril and pain. As does Jenna/Ivariel in her own way.

For followers of the Twelve Kingdoms series, it is fascinating to see a completely different part of this world. But it IS a completely different place, so new readers get to see it for the first time along with the rest of us.

This is Jenna’s story as she transforms into Ivariel. We see her grow and stretch and reach out – and sometimes pull back. This is a story of her healing and becoming – even though some of that process is painful, bloody and violent. It feels necessary for her to get past what she lived, and the way that she accomplishes that feels right for her – if not for the faint of heart.

Because the arc of this book is on a constant rise, it does not have any of the feel of a middle book. This is overall a positive story, something that middle-books seldom are. She grows, she changes, she gets better, she takes a step backward and then she reaches forward again. She stumbles, she falls, she doubts, she gets up and tries again.

And after the pain she experienced in the first book, it is not merely good but downright cathartic to see her begin to come into her own.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series, Warrior of the World, coming this winter. A trip to hot Nyambura should warm at least one chilly January night.