Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, Renée Nault
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: dystopian, graphic novel, science fiction
Pages: 240
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on March 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying reality of Gilead has been brought to vivid life like never before.

My Review:

I have to confess that I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, until now. I say that even though I have used it as an example in one way or another in more than one review. The basic story, after all, is well known and has become one of the classic works of late 20th century/early 21st century dystopian science fiction – in spite of its author claiming that it is not any such thing. Science fiction, that is.

And it’s been an extremely popular TV series. Everyone knows the basic story, even if not the details. Which means that while I’m not going to deliberately set out to include spoilers, I’m also not going to worry much about it. The story has been around and endlessly discussed for 35 years at this point, after all.

Fair warning that this is also going to be one of those reviews that mostly gets into what I thought and am still thinking about this one, rather than a critique of the book as such. My approach/avoidance reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve come to now that I have finally read it are still rolling around in my head.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has their own opinions of the book at this point, whether they’ve read it or not.

Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely why I haven’t until now and probably wouldn’t have yet if I hadn’t seen the graphic novel version in Half Price Books. The graphic novel felt like a way of getting through the story without having to wallow in the expected pain of it.

While I admit that part of my initial rejection had to do with the author’s rejection of even the idea that the story might be part of the dreaded and dreadful GENRE, in this case SF, instead of being part of the more socially acceptable and highbrow body of literary works.

Well, this certainly has all the angst that I associate with literary fiction, but it is also very definitely part of the SF genre. It’s SF of the extremely dystopian variety, set in a world that has not happened – at least not yet – and might not. And hopefully will not. And is a dystopia kicked off by climate change and ruin of the environment. (In that, it reminds me a bit of The Children of Men by P.D. James, which I liked a lot more but did not generate all the interest and awards that The Handmaid’s Tale did.)

I didn’t read this for the longest time because I just didn’t want to wallow in that angst. This situation is awful. It is supremely awful for women, but it isn’t that great for men, either. But the men are the ones who make this omelet and the women are the eggs getting broken in the process – pun definitely intended.

And it does resonate with the historical oppression of women as well as the current era of attempting to return to that level of oppression. But with a difference. Because the methods of Gilead also have parallels with the holocaust and other genocides. It’s not just that in Gilead all women have been reduced to their biological function and nothing more, but also that the government has done an all too efficient job of cutting off any and all means of escape. Not just that the borders are closed, heavily guarded and well-armed, but that even methods of suicide are almost completely cut off.

So, as a story I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be unrelentingly depressing. In the extreme. Fascinating, but a complete downer. As it’s intended to be. The situation is awful and horrible and even Offred’s possible escape doesn’t change that. Because even if she did make it out, we don’t actually see it. And she leaves all of the other women in Gilead behind, whether she does manage to escape either to Canada or to death.

This was a book where I desperately wanted a catharsis at the end, and did not feel anything of the sort. The ending felt like a bit of a cheat, as it fast forwards to a future where Gilead’s existence is well in the past, where the record that Offred left behind is studied as a historical artifact. But we know nothing of how the world reached that point, or actually how much better it supposedly is – if it is at all.

It’s an ending which left me totally cold. As an object lesson, as a meditation on how easily a group can be subjugated, it is horrific but all too realistic. As dystopian SF, it is chilling in the extreme. But as a story, it felt like it didn’t so much end as trail off.

I understand that the reader was supposed to see the ending as kind of a “Schrodinger’s escape” where all results are possible and Offred can either have escaped, been killed or come to some equally gruesome end. That it isn’t necessary for us to really know how it ended to be satisfied with what we had.

I felt more horrified than satisfied. But I still want to know what happened, a state in which I clearly was not alone, as the author released a sequel, The Testaments, last year to answer at least some of the questions rattling around in readers’ heads. I’ll get around to reading, or at least skimming that, someday, just to get some resolution on the whole thing.

Escape Rating B: The rating is kind of an average. I found the story to be absorbing but terrifying. I couldn’t stop turning the pages but I also desperately wanted to be ejected from the nightmare. And I know that I would have bounced off this one hard without the graphic novel.

The graphic novel is utterly beautiful. Equally terrifying, but absolutely exquisite.

In short, it feels like this was an important story to read for myself and not just rely on summaries – and I’d never judge a book by either its movie or its TV series. But I also know that I’ll never read it again.

Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna HackettHell Squad: Survivors (Hell Squad #19) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #19
Pages: 222
Published by Anna Hackett on February 11th, 2010
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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In the aftermath of a deadly alien invasion, a band of survivors fights on…

Survivors contains three action-packed novellas in the Hell Squad series.

Includes:

Nate – Long before the aliens invaded, former Marine Nate Caldwell came home a broken man. Going off-grid in a cabin he inherited in Australia’s Blue Mountains, he survived the invasion with only his dog Blue for company. For two years, he’s avoided the aliens and any survivors – he’s done his fighting and can’t go into battle again. But when a young woman crashes into his lonely existence, with the aliens hot on her heels, she changes everything…

Dak – Captain Dak Vaughn only has room for his job as head of security for Groom Lake Base. His focus has to be on keeping all the survivors alive, and not on the tough, attractive new recruit who gets under his skin. But when a dangerous mission requires them to go deep into alien territory, Dak finds himself up close and personal with a woman who is pure temptation.

Alexander – Marine engineer turned base leader, Alexander Erickson, leads a tiny base of survivors in the snowy climes of Norway. Balancing the needs and safety of his group keeps him busy, and he longs for someone to share the load, someone to call his own. The one independent woman he wants refuses to see him as anything more than a leader and a younger man. But when mysterious alien activity encroaches on their safety, they will join forces to investigate and Alexander might finally have his chance.

My Review:

Survivors is, OMG thank you Anna so much, the next-to-last book in the Hell Squad series, which began all the way back with Marcus back in 2015. I think more real world time has elapsed since that first book than has world time within the series.

Although the world of Hell Squad has certainly had one hell of a worse time than the real world has, in spite of everything awful that has happened since 2015.

Why? Because we haven’t been invaded by rapacious alien insectoids intent on stripping the Earth of its resources and converting the entire population, both human and animal, into more of their kind.

The Gizzida are basically space locusts with much too high an IQ. They are unfortunately way too good at conquering and consuming their way across the galaxy. And now they’re here.

The Hell Squad series has been a race against time from the very beginning. The Gizzida plan to strip the planet and move on, leaving nothing behind them. The remaining human population has been waging a constant guerrilla war to slow the aliens down long enough to either kill them all, shove them back into space, or preferably both.

That race is now down to the wire, as the Gizzida are building three superbombs filled with their DNA. They plan to deploy those bombs in a coordinated strike, blanketing Earth in their genetic material and converting the remaining population in one exceedingly fell swoop.

The story in Survivors is all about the human survivors plan to thwart them.

But those bombs are distributed around the globe, and so are the novellas in this collection, giving readers a chance to finally see some of the action happening in the human enclaves outside of Australia where the series so far has been set.

We do start “down under” with the kind of person we know must have existed but haven’t seen much of. Most of the survivors have banded together in The Enclave, under the protection of as many of the United Coalition Armed Forces as could make their way to the base. But some lone wolves would have managed to survive in remote locations far away from either the aliens or the protective squads.

Nate’s story is that of one of those isolated survivors, a man who left his war behind before the aliens invaded, and stayed on his own because he felt too damaged to return to any fight. His peace is invaded by a courageous woman escaping from an alien experimentation lab with the Gizzida hot on her heels. But Ali has seen one of those terrible bombs, and its location has to reach The Enclave at any cost.

Speculation has placed the second bomb in North America, and it’s up to the security forces at Groom Lake (that’s Area 51) to locate its hiding place. Meanwhile, the third bomb is hidden by the snow and ice of Norway, and it’s the job of the their base leader to dig up its location so the humans can enact their plans before the Gizzida can complete theirs.

Escape Rating A-: I liked Survivors a lot, more than many of the recent entries in the series, for a whole bunch of reasons.

One reason is that we got to see some things we haven’t seen before. While both Groom Lake and Setermoen Base have been mentioned before in the series, we hadn’t had a chance to go there until now.

Second, I loved that the romances were different from each other, and that two of them were different from the usual pattern in this series. Nate, as mentioned above, is a lone wolf survivor. While he’s very much the kind of damaged, scarred soldier as the men who make up the squads, the shattering of his fragile peace by Ari allows him to reconnect with the rest of humanity.

Liv, in the third story, is a solitary who visits the Setermoen Base for supplies but prefers to live on her own. So not as lone wolf as Nate but also not as “part of the tribe” as the protagonists of the other story. I liked that the leader of her base was an engineer, not a soldier, and that he had managed to save most of his extended family, so he has connections to parents and siblings that most people in the other bases no longer have. And I always love an older women/younger man romance when it is done well, and this one is.

Also, both Nate and Liv have marvelous canine companion animals.

While Dak and Naomi’s romance in the Groom Lake story did follow a similar pattern to many of the romances in this series, their high-stakes, high-wire exploration of and escape from Hoover Dam was terrific.

And in all three cases, the stories moved the overall series plot forward by leaps and bounds. They’ve found all the bombs. They have allies to work with, and time to finalize their plans and kick the Gizzida off Earth once and for all.

That’s a story I’ve been waiting for since 2015, and it’s finally here. The next book in the series, Tane’s story, will be the last. The human survivors will get to celebrate their very own Independence Day this summer. And I can’t wait.

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah GaileyUpright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, LGBT, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

"That girl's got more wrong notions than a barn owl's got mean looks."

Esther is a stowaway. She's hidden herself away in the Librarian's book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her--a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of the stories of the Pack Horse Library Project, stories like The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars. And it certainly feels like Upright Women Wanted was at least partially inspired by that history.

What I wasn’t expecting was the crossing with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I confess I STILL have not read) or a reversal of The Gate to Women’s Country, especially in a setting that reminds me of even more surprisingly American War and Junkyard Cats. A future that is so FUBAR that the means and standards of living have gone backwards, because war is hell and the entire country is being sacrificed to it one bit at a time.

There’s also a heaping helping of George Orwell’s 1984 to add to the mix, but in a really subversive way. In the world of the Upright Women, Big Brother doesn’t actually need to watch everyone all the time. The propaganda of the ubiquitous and extremely carefully curated “Approved Materials” has created a society where “Big Brother” has been more or less successfully uploaded into each individual’s own brain without them being consciously aware of it.

What makes this story so fascinating is the way that its protagonist, Esther, is such a marvelously conflicted example of all of the ways in which those Approved Materials both have and have not taken – and what she does about it.

Esther is queer in a world where the only stories she sees about women like herself are stories where people like her, or people who are in any way different from the accepted world order, are punished or dead or mostly punished and dead.

She’s fled her town after being on the sharply pointed receiving end of one such object lesson. Her best friend and lover has been hung, by Esther’s own father – the local sheriff – for having been caught in possession of Unapproved Materials. Reading anything not approved by the state is a hanging offense.

While Esther is still “safe” for certain select values of safe, she is all too aware of the writing on her wall. She can hide what she is and pretend to be subservient to the man her father has picked out for her – or she can run. Everything she has read has led her to believe that she will come to a bad end no matter what she does, but at least if she runs she might not bring the consequences of her supposed evil to her town.

And she might have a chance to atone for her “sins”. So she smuggles herself aboard the Librarians’ wagon, believing that in their service she will find a way to live and serve the state without being put in the way of the temptation she can’t make herself resist.

But the Librarians are nothing like what she thought they were, nothing like what all the Approved Materials that she has read, that the Librarians themselves have brought to her town, have led her to believe.

They say that the truth will set you free. The truth certainly sets Esther free. But first she has to learn to recognize it for herself.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a part of me that found this story to be just a bit of a tease. This is a novella, so it is relatively short. The points of the story are sharp, laser-focused even, but we don’t ever find out how this future version of our world got to be the way it is, or even much in the way of details of exactly how it is – even though it feels like a not-too-far-out-there possibility from where we’re standing. But I always want to know more about how things ended up this way. I’d love to revisit this world to learn more.

But even though I didn’t get to learn the history lessons of this place, the story still has plenty to teach.

The first lesson of this story is never to mess with librarians. And that’s a fantastic lesson to learn – or so says this librarian. I’m also terribly glad that this lesson about librarians is all about the subversive nature of information. And the way that these librarians are using the appearance of conforming to participate in a revolution. Or at least a rebellion.

So yes, this is a story about a plucky resistance versus at least a repressive empire if not a completely evil one. As far as we know, there’s no Palpatine here, just a whole lot of people going along to get along to keep themselves safe. There’s just no place for anyone who can’t move in the proper lockstep and the punishment for not marching in step is death.

The second lesson is about not believing what you read. Instead of “trust, then verify” the lesson is “verify, then trust”. And to always examine everything you see and hear and read to figure out why you’re being told what you’re being told and who benefits from you believing it. Because it usually isn’t you. And no one can say that this particular lesson doesn’t have a hell of a lot of applicability in the here and now.

The most important lesson is the one about self-acceptance. Esther goes from believing that she must be evil because that’s what she’s always been taught, to accepting that she is who she is meant to be, and that who she loves is her right. And that she has every right to fight for who and what she wants and that those horrible lessons that the state tried to install are not the truth of her – not at all.

And while that lesson of self-acceptance is explicitly about queer self-acceptance, there’s a lesson there for all of us, particularly those of us living while female. Because society has boxes for all us, and those boxes don’t fit a lot of us in all sorts of ways. Accepting that not being the kind of woman that society seems determined to force us to be is an important but necessary lesson we all need to hear – a hell of a lot more often than we do.

Guest Review: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

Guest Review: Last Light by Alex ScarrowLast Light (Last Light, #1) by Alex Scarrow
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: action adventure, dystopian, thriller
Series: Last Light #1
Pages: 402
Published by Orion on July 25th 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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It begins on a very normal Monday morning. But in the space of only a few days, the world's oil supplies have been severed and at a horrifying pace things begin to unravel everywhere. This is no natural disaster; someone is behind this.

Oil engineer Andy Sutherland is stranded in Iraq with a company of British soldiers, desperate to find a way home, trapped as the very infrastructure of daily life begins to collapse around him. Back in Britain, his wife Jenny is stuck in Manchester, fighting desperately against the rising chaos to get back to their children; London as events begin to spiral out of control -- riots, raging fires, looting, rape, and murder. In the space of a week, London is transformed into an anarchic vision of hell.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tracking Andy's family. He'll silence anyone who can reveal the identities of those behind this global disaster. The people with a stranglehold on the future of civilization have flexed their muscles at other significant tipping points in history, and they are prepared to do anything to keep their secret -- and their power -- safe.

Guest Review by Amy:

What would happen to our lives if the flow of oil suddenly got chopped off? Alex Scarrow gives us one possible answer: chaos. One family, Andy and Jennifer Sutherland and their children, college-age Leona and young Jacob, is separated by their circumstances when things go to pieces: Andy is in Iraq with his consulting work as an engineer, Jennifer is in Manchester applying for a job, Leona is at college, and Jake is at his boarding school. As the family struggles to reunite safely at their London home while their world collapses around them, it becomes clear that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Escape Rating: A-: I’ll be honest here; I don’t read a lot of “thrillers,” really, but this one seemed interesting after its title appeared in a discussion I was reading about theories around the end of our oil-dependent civilization. The premise here is that things would get crazy in a big, big hurry, if oil production were disrupted at a few key places; the “Peak Oil” theory, as opposed to one of many “depletion” theories. The story was written in 2007, and the situation has changed since then – for one thing, the largest oil-producing country in the world is no longer Saudi Arabia, but the United States. So, the story feels a little dated in that respect.

Taken purely as an adventure-thriller, though, it’s got a lot of solid points. There is a deep conspiracy which has been orchestrating a lot of the chaos, and they’re certain that young Leona knows who at least one of the conspirators is, thanks to a random occurrence ten years before, so an assassin is dispatched to “clean up.” Meanwhile, Andy is struggling, with the help of another foreign contractor and some British troops, to escape Iraq and get home, and Jenny finds herself far to the north of her home, aided by a stranger.

All four members of the Sutherland family are quickly exposed to the fact that we humans turn into savages very, very quickly when things get weird. There’s much made of the fact that “We British are better than this,” and even the Prime Minister, in his press conference, tries to appeal to the Churchillian spirit of his people, to buck up and be strong, we’re Brits, we can handle this. (Pro-tip for Prime Ministers: That was then, this is now, and that appeal probably won’t work today. It sure didn’t for this poor man.)

The action is fast, and lots of people don’t make it, so as readers, we must be careful which characters we get interested in, lest they leave us too soon. The book is stark and shocking, and certainly thought-provoking in light of more-recent events. As I say, thrillers aren’t necessarily my everyday read, but this one had a lot of interesting things going on, plenty of suspense, and enough thought-provoking commentary on the situation to get me thinking and reading more about those matters elsewhere. It’s a quick read, so if you like high-speed thrillers, give this one a look.

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith HunterJunkyard Cats by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, post apocalyptic
Series: Shining Smith #1
Published by Audible Studios on January 2nd 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

After the Final War, after the appearance of the Bug aliens and their enforced peace, Shining Smith is still alive, still doing business from the old scrapyard bequeathed to her by her father. But Shining is now something more than human. And the scrapyard is no longer just a scrapyard, but a place full of secrets that she has guarded for years.

This life she has built, while empty, is predictable and safe. Until the only friend left from her previous life shows up, dead, in the back of a scrapped Tesla warplane, a note to her clutched in his fingers - a note warning her of a coming attack.

Someone knows who she is. Someone knows what she is guarding. Will she be able to protect the scrapyard? Will she even survive? Or will she have to destroy everything she loves to keep her secrets out of the wrong hands?

My Review:

I picked up Junkyard Cats because it was one of the monthly freebies for Audible members. It looked like interesting SF, had “Cats” in the title, and I was looking for something shorter after spending a whole lot of hours sucked into an excellent but long story and needed a bit of a break.

And did I ever get one. Although Shining Smith doesn’t seem to get many. Ever. At all.

The setting for Junkyard Cats is a remote bit of post-apocalyptic West Virginia in a future that doesn’t seem that far away in time from our present. But it’s clearly one hell of distance down the road to hell.

This is not remotely one of the fun post-apocalypses. Shining Smith’s world is more like Mad Max – possibly Mad Max on steroids. Or on Devil Milk, which actually seems to be worse. Or both.

The sheer bleakness of this post-climate-seriously-changed world reminds me a bit of the world of American War. Only a whole lot worse on the environmental front. But less…awful…in a different way as this wasn’t kicked off by a civil war. At least not so far as we know – yet. And not that it hasn’t become one along the way.

But the story of Junkyard Cats is the story of how Shining’s remote, lonely and seemingly safe little junkyard gets invaded – disrupting her hard-won peace and exposing all of her many, many secrets.

Including the crashed spaceship buried in her backyard. Especially the spaceship buried in her backyard. And the secret hidden in Shining’s radically altered DNA. Her enemies have found her – and so have her friends. Shining’s biggest problem is figuring out which are which.

And letting the cats, her Cats, have the rest. After all, in a world where everything that supports life is very, very scarce, a protein source is much too good to let go to waste.

Escape Rating A-: I really, really wish there was more of this available already, because this first story is a teaser with a lot of worldbuilding, a crew of absolutely fascinating characters – whether organic, partly organic, or artificially intelligent – and a pride of sentient, semi-telepathic warrior cats with an agenda of their own. But then, don’t cats always have an agenda of their own?

Actually, she had me at the cats, but in the end I was equally beguiled by Shining Smith’s world-weary voice. The narrator does an excellent job conveying Shining’s loneliness, her hopes, her fears and especially her desperate need to keep her very motley crew safe and to keep the rest of the world safe from her.

And her complete, total and utter annoyance that the world has come to get her because she couldn’t let go of her past – no matter how much she seriously needed to.

The biggest part of this story is a gigantic battle, conducted all over the junkyard with the help of her friends – including a few that Shining didn’t even know she had – or that some of them even existed in a state that could truly help. And that’s her fault too.

But this is a battle that’s not over when it’s over. The only question is where the next front will be – and who and what Shining can bring to the fight.

As teasers go, Junkyard Cats is one hell of a tease. I just wish I could find some info on where Shining Smith and the Cats go from here. Because they are awesome.

Guest Review: H2O by Irving Belateche

Guest Review: H2O by Irving BelatecheH2O by Irving Belateche
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction, thriller
Pages: 198
Published by Laurel Canyon Press on November 8, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
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Roy Walker is curious. But in a world where knowledge has disappeared, curiosity will get you killed.

Generations ago, the Passim Virus wiped out most of humanity. The survivors banded together to form the Territory and, now, decades later, no one questions why knowledge has disappeared. Why should they? They're lucky to be alive.

But Roy doesn't feel so lucky. He's haunted by the murder of his father and he's ostracized by everyone in town. He asks way too many questions, especially about the water pumped out by the town's desalination plant.

Then Roy finds a tantalizing clue that leads him down the coast of what used to be the state of Oregon. He's stunned at what he discovers. Everything in the Territory is a lie and everything around him is a front. But to uncover the dark secret behind this front, Roy must venture deeper into the wilderness where marauders and the deadly Passim Virus wait to kill.

It's there, outside the Territory, where he discovers the truth about his father's murder and where he meets his unexpected destiny -- To free humanity from the bondage of a powerful enemy.

Guest review by Amy:

Curiosity killed the cat, the old saying goes, though Roy Walker probably never has known that, since quite a lot of the vast body of human knowledge has been lost. Once the Passim Virus wiped out vast swaths of humanity, the survivors didn’t have time to… wait.

They didn’t have time to keep up a lot of the tools and technology that actually would have made surviving easier? Something doesn’t add up here.

Escape Rating: B+: I’m normally excited about post-apocalyptic adventure/thrillers; to me, it’s interesting to see how the author constructs their world. Does it look kind of like ours? What technologies develop in the ad hoc world after whatever-it-was-that-happened? What technology and culture falls by the wayside? Action, adventure, romance, all those things being in there are all a big plus to the central theme of “modern” humans trying to survive.

Author Irving Belateche has given us a slice of our own world, on the US West Coast, and quite a lot of it looks familiar. Houses, people, vehicles, even the desalination plant that our protagonist maintains, all look more-or-less normal. There are just lots of empty houses, and no one knows, really, what’s outside “the Territory,” and everyone’s scared to find out, because of the Virus.

To me, right from that point, this story has a problem for me. Humankind likes to connect, to explore, to get out there in the wild blue yonder and find things out. It’s what we do, and it’s made us the apex life form on this planet over the last several thousand years, and even gotten us into space.

To see a huge area of the United States cut itself off and be content with that strikes me as odd, right out of the gate. And a question in my mind from the get-go was “what happened to the libraries?” There are quite a few great big ‘uns along the Washington-Oregon-California coast; surely someone would have thought to go look for a computer repair manual in one of them? Or a copy of Programming Perl? Instead, we’re led to believe that writing software and maintaining computers are some magical voodoo that few can do–and, indeed, people are punished for doing so. As a software developer on my day job, and having worked with developers for thirty years, I’m just not buying this. Life, and software, always finds a way, to borrow loosely from Jurassic Park, but Belateche somehow wants us to believe that that’s not the case. Humanity’s vast banks of knowledge – libraries – are thoroughly ignored, not even mentioned once in the book.

I’ll let that go, for a moment, and suspend the big disbelief that threw me off-kilter here. The story itself has a lot of interesting points. There’s the worry about catching the Virus, the traveling without the “Fibs” (law enforcement) finding them, even a whiff of what could have eventually turned into some kind of love interest. Roy Walker is curious where all the water goes, naturally, since he maintains the water plant, and he knows it makes more than his local community could be using. That drives him to do something he shouldn’t (“finally! Someone acting like a real human,” Amy says to herself) and he goes to find out where all the water is going. At first, he thinks it’s corruption or some other criminal activity, but of course we’re given a deeper reason, and that is, in fact, why the Virus happened in the first place. There’s a decent adventure story under the hood here, and once Roy figures out what’s really going on, a straightforward redeem-humanity plot emerges from the earlier confusion. Our accidental hero is quite heroic, our villain suitably nasty, and the final confrontation satisfying.

Other people have liked this book a lot more than I did, from the reviews. My problem, as I noted above, is that it required a little more suspension of disbelief a little more than I was willing to give it. If that doesn’t present a problem for you, and you like post-apocalyptic stories, this one might be one you’d enjoy. It wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a stinker, either.

Review: If This Goes On edited by Cat Rambo

Review: If This Goes On edited by Cat RamboIf This Goes On by Cat Rambo, E. Lily Yu, Aimee Ogden, Rachel Chimits, Cyd Athens, Scott Edelman, Jack Lothian, Gregory Jeffers, Conor Powers-Smith, Priya Sridhar, Andy Duncan, Lynette Mejía, Hal Y. Zhang, Nick Mamatas, Steven Barnes, Kitty-Lydia Dye, Tiffany E. Wilson, Nisi Shawl, Kathy Schilbach, Zandra Renwick, Chris Kluwe, Sarah Pinsker, Calie Voorhis, Marie Vibbert, James Wood, Jamie Lackey, Paul Crenshaw, Langley Hyde, Judy Helfrich, Beth Dawkins, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 304
Published by Parvus Press LLC on March 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonKoboBook Depository
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A bold new anthology born of rage and sorrow and hope. 30 writers look at what today's politics and policies will do to shape our world a generation from now. Some of today's most visionary writers of science fiction project us forward to the world of the future; a world shaped by nationalism, isolationism, and a growing divide between the haves and have nots. This anthology sits at the intersection of politics, speculative fiction, and American identity. The choices we make today, the policies of our governments and the values that we, as people, embrace are going to shape our world for decades to come. Or break it. Edited by Cat Rambo, the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the stories of If This Goes On invite you to worlds very like this one-- but just a little different.

Table of contents:Green Glass: A Love Story by E. Lily YuTwelve Histories Scrawled in the Sky by Aimee OgdenDead Wings by Rachel ChimitsWelcome to Gray by Cyd AthensThe Stranded Time Traveler Embraces the Inevitable by Scott EdelmanGood Pupils by Jack LothianAll the Good Dogs Have Been Eaten by Gregory JeffersThe Sinking Tide by Conor Powers-SmithMustard Seeds and the Elephant’s Foot by Priya SridharMr. Percy’s Shortcut by Andy DuncanA Gardener’s Guide to the Apocalypse by Lynette MejíaBut for Grace by Hal Y. ZhangHurrah! Another Year, Surely This One Will Be Better Than The Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Will Lead Us All to Happiness by Nick MamatasThe Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit by Steven BarnesThree Data Units by Kitty-Lydia DyeOne Shot by Tiffany E. WilsonKing Harvest (Will Surely Come) by Nisi ShawlCounting the Days by Kathy SchilbachMaking Happy by Zandra RenwickThe Machine by Chris KluweThat Our Flag Was Still There by Sarah PinskerThe Editor’s Eyes by Calie VoorhisFree WiFi by Marie VibbertDiscobolos by James WoodFine by Jamie LackeyBulletproof Tattoos by Paul CrenshawCall and Answer by Langley HydeA Pocketful of Dolphins by Judy HelfrichTasting Bleach and Decay in the City of Dust by Beth DawkinsThe Choices You Make by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

My Review:

I picked this up around the same time I received Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized to review for Library Journal. Just from the descriptions, it seemed that these two books either springboarded off the same event, were in dialog with each other, or both. (This is also a giant hint that if this book interests you that one will too!)

They’re not exactly in dialog with each other, but they certainly arose out of the same event – the 2016 election. Both are wrapped around the question about what the state of the US – and by extension the world – will be in the future if the hateful politics and policies that were given voice and force by the election of 45 continue into the future relatively unchecked.

That premise is explicit in If This Goes On, and implicit in Radicalized, but it is definitely there in both books.

They are very different collections, however. Radicalized consists of four novellas by a single author, where If This Goes On is a collection in the broader sense, of relatively short stories by 30+ authors around the single theme.

A theme that the collection is screaming about – loudly and with metaphorical expletives. As far as the authors and editor are concerned (and this reader) the policies of those elected in that mess are undoing much of the good that the US has done and are making both the country and the world into a worse place than it was.

None of the writers want the situation to continue – and have done science fiction’s usual excellent job of extending the present out into the possible, even plausible, end point of the contemporary mess in order to show just how awful things can be.

In the hopes that we will band together and do something about it before it is too late.

Escape Rating B+: My feels are all over the place on this one.

First, because it bothered the hell out of me and presumably will other people, the title of the collection sounds familiar because it is. If This Goes On— is the title of a novella by Robert A. Heinlein, a novella which would itself feel at home in this collection.

Whether the title of the collection is in homage or not, there is still plenty of resonance between the two.

This is not a collection to be read late at night, particularly with only the light of one’s screen to push back the darkness. Because there’s plenty of darkness in these stories. While some of them border on horror in the traditional sense, most of the stories give the reader the sense that they are looking at something horrible. And I was appropriately – and shudderingly – horrified.

There is some humor in some of the stories, but it is primarily humor of the “gallows” persuasion. These futures are all bleak in one way or another. While the stories themselves are excellent, the overall tone is fairly dark.

Each story is followed by an editor’s note that tends to hit that dark tone over the head with a baseball bat. The stories generally speak for themselves so that repeated emphasis felt a bit like being bludgeoned with the point of the collection – over and over again. I was already metaphorically bleeding so this was a case where the beatings didn’t need to continue until morale improved because it wasn’t going to happen. But there’s something about the reference to that t-shirt saying that seems appropriate just the same – possibly because hearing the news these days does feel a bit like that proverbial beating.

As much as I agreed with the authors’ and the editor’s perspectives, I’ll admit to getting tired of having it beaten into my head over and over again. YMMV.

These stories stand on their own. Sometimes swaying in the wind from the apocalypse, but they do stand. And the collection is well worth reading. If you read nothing else from this collection, look for Mustard Seeds and the Elephant’s Foot by Priya Sridhar – it’s lovely.

As the saying goes, in reference to the collection as a whole, “Read ‘em and weep.”

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’DellA Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles #1) by Claire O'Dell, Beth Bernobich
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, mystery, science fiction
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.

Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

My Review:

This was a wow. Even better, it was a wow in ways that I wasn’t expecting, so excellent all the way around.

Admittedly, I bounced off A Study in Honor the first time I started it. I was expecting a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which it sorta/kinda is, but that’s not really apparent at the beginning. At the beginning, we’re following Dr. Janet Watson as she gets the shaft from the VA after losing her arm in combat.

Dr. Watson is a surgeon, and to go back to that job in civilian life, she needs two good hands. And the combat-damaged prosthetic that was supposed to be a temporary fix, well, it isn’t even good enough for much in civilian life – it certainly isn’t good enough for surgery.

But the war isn’t going well, is extremely unpopular, and the VA is sucking hind tit in the federal budget. Some things never change.

Other things do.

This war, unlike the perpetual war in Afghanistan that injured both the original Dr. John Watson and his 21st century incarnation in Sherlock, is a civil war. In what has become the not-so-United States.

The very frightening thing about this war is that it is so close we can see it from here. And entirely possible for all that. It’s a variation on the civil war in the darkly awesome book American War by Omar El Akkad, where the “reactionary” forces of the Old South have picked up the guns they are always afraid are going to be taken away from them and started a shooting war with what they see as the liberal-leftist North and Left-Coast West.

Unlike in American War, in this version, the so-called “Conservative” forces seem to be winning, if not all of the battles, at least the battle for hearts and minds in the North. It’s as though they made Robert E. Lee’s strategy work – just keep going long enough for the North to get too tired to fight.

This is also a scary close near future in that in 2016 Trump did get elected. Then after his administration overthrew as many of the civil rights of minorities as they could possibly manage, got replaced by the backlash of a progressive female Democratic president. After spending part of her first term turning back as much of the damage as possible, the folks who want their idealized 1950s back began the war in Oklahoma.

But this isn’t quite a dystopia, although it’s certainly getting there. Back home in Washington DC, away from the fronts in the states surrounding Oklahoma, the world seems to be going on as normal.

Unless you’re a wounded veteran trying to get the benefits you’re entitled to out of a VA that only cares about its bottom line.

Just as in the original stories, and in most of the remixes and pastiches, Watson is living off her military pension and needs a job. Holmes, in this case Sara Holmes, wants a roommate for the apartment she needs but claims to not be able to quite afford without said roommate.

But this Holmes is not what she seems. She’s every bit as brilliant (and enigmatic) as her original, but unlike the original Sherlock Holmes, Sara Holmes is not an independent agent.

As Janet Watson eventually discovers.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a lot about the setup of this story, because a lot of this book is setup. While this world unfortunately feels like a logical extension of current events, it is not current events and needs to get us fixed firmly into its vision of the future.

Which does not mean it isn’t a vision of the future that doesn’t include a whole lot of the present. Unfortunately for our protagonists, the parts of the present that carry over are quite frequently the worst bits. I said this isn’t a dystopia, but a better description would be that it isn’t a dystopia yet.

Those roots in the contemporary present form a good part of the terrible case that Janet unearths and that Sara helps her resolve. Part of what makes this book an A- rather than a A is that the case was fairly obvious. All too plausible, but also all too easy to figure out from the very first clue.

What makes this story, this version of Holmes and Watson, so fascinating are the characters of the two women. Instead of two white men in Victorian England (or 21st century England, for that matter), the Holmes and Watson in A Study in Honor are two black women at a time and place where the hope for true equality that shone during the Obama era has receded into the past and is dying under the lash of “conservative” dog-whistles that are pitched so any human can hear.

Which also means that in addition to the many indignities visited upon Janet Watson because she’s a wounded veteran, even more are heaped upon her because she’s black and because she dared to aspire to a profession that some people still believe should have been reserved for whites. And where the lesbianism of both of the protagonists just adds yet another layer of potential for prejudice.

A Study in Honor is a dark and gritty portrait of a world going to hell in a handcart, as seen from the perspective of someone who has visited that hell, and sometimes seems to have only left it in body but not in spirit. And investigates a mystery that plows right into the hell of that war and the dark heart of the people and governments that are waging it.

Watson and Holmes’ adventures continue in The Hound of Justice. I can’t wait.

Reviewer’s Note: Claire O’Dell is a pseudonym for author Beth Bernobich.

Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella Forrest

Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella ForrestThe Gender Game by Bella Forrest
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Gender Game #1
Pages: 418
Published by Nightlight Press on November 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A toxic river divides nineteen-year-old Violet Bates's world by gender. Women rule the East. Men rule the West.

Welcome to the lands of Matrus and Patrus.

Ever since the disappearance of her beloved younger brother, Violet's life has been consumed by an anger she struggles to control. Already a prisoner to her own nation, now she has been sentenced to death for her crimes.

But one decision could save her life.

To enter the kingdom of Patrus, where men rule and women submit.

Everything about the patriarchy is dangerous for a rebellious girl like Violet. She cannot break the rules if she wishes to stay alive. But abiding by rules has never been her strong suit, and when she is thrust into more danger than she could have ever predicted, Violet is forced to sacrifice many things in the forbidden kingdom ... including forbidden love.

In a world divided by gender, only the strongest survive...

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story opens with young Violet Bates trying to smuggle her brother across a toxic river in the dead of the night. They’re caught, and Violet’s life is forever changed. Some time in our future, in the devastation of our world, men and women move apart, and try two different ways of running a society. In Patrus, the men rule; in Matrus, the women are in charge. There are some folks who go back and forth, of course, and a few who have stayed on the “wrong” side of the river, for an assortment of reasons.

After much of her youth is spent in prisons, Matrian youngster Violet is recruited for a dangerous mission–go to Patrus, and steal something back that belongs to the Queen!

Escape Rating: B+. Dystopian fiction interests me. There’s a lot of it that is pretty consistent meat-and-taters: downfall of society for some reason or another, utter lawlessness, the fight for survival, the whole Mad Max vibe, you know? But once in a while, an author gives us a new spin, and here we have one. Some of the reviewers have compared this to The Hunger Games, but I don’t think the comparison does either tale justice, really; this story pokes rather firmly at things that most adults have pretty firmly settled in their mind: gender, and how the genders behave.

In The Gender Game, we’re introduced to a society split along gender lines. In Patrus, women are essentially enslaved to their fathers and husbands, and have almost no rights. In Matrus, men are carefully watched for aggressive tendencies, and sent to the mines or killed as soon as they don’t toe the line drawn by the women who run things.

Violet’s story is interesting, growing up jailed, and how she learned to survive in a system that just could not embrace her, after her failure to crack down on her own brother. When she’s whisked away from all that, and offered a deal that she can’t refuse, we’ve got a whole new story to digest.

As I read through The Gender Game, I looked at my e-book reader and saw I was near the end. I thought about not finishing it, because it seemed kind of predictable in the early pages – Violet trains up for the heist, she and her Patrian ally decide who to frame, she interacts with the scapegoat – I don’t really need to go on, do I? But I’m glad I read all the way to the end! We get a plot twist right in the final pages that sets up the second story in this series, The Gender Secret, where (presumably) we’ll explore more of this world that Bella Forrest has created.

It’s that plot twist, in this reviewer’s mind, that saves this book from a lower rating. I liked the story well enough, and Violet was a good enough heroine, with a very realistic set of struggles to go along with the big plot problem, but it just didn’t excite me early on. The strangeness of the Matrus/Patrus setting took a little explaining, so it took a while to ramp up the character development and conflict. It made for a little bit of slow going at first, but this series is now standing at seven books, so I would presume that there’s a bit less exposition about this curious setting in later volumes.

Another problem that I have is…well, let me remind you that I’m a transgender woman. Gender is not binary, not A or B, but a spectrum of in-betweens and even a few folks who eschew it altogether. The Gender Games utterly ignores this, firmly asserting a very heterosexual, very traditional binary gender system. Living in a world like we do, where we are somewhat more liberal-thinking than that, this story feels like a step backward to me, because of that glaring discrepancy.

It’s a good story, though, and I’m strongly considering picking up more of the series, just to see if our heroine manages to be the catalyst for change in this strange society she lives in. If you like dystopian fiction, and want a piece that is outside the norm, it’s certainly worth a look.

 

 

Review: Hell Squad: Theron by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Theron by Anna HackettTheron (Hell Squad #12) Formats available: ebook
Series: Hell Squad #12
Pages: 223
on April 30th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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Squad mates, best friends, and fighting to survive in the middle of an alien invasion. Can she make one stubborn alpha male soldier see her as something else?

Sienna Rossi has always been a mix of contradictions. She loves ice cream, likes cooking, and is skilled at taking down aliens with her squad. Sweet and tough, soldier and woman, most people can't seem to make sense of her...even the loving family she lost in the invasion and especially men. One man accepts her as she is, her best friend Theron. But the big, silent, muscled soldier has her firmly in the 'friends' zone...except that Sienna knows he wants her, and she's determined to claim the stubborn man as hers.

Theron Wade lives to fight aliens. They killed his parents, his foster siblings, and his fellow Rangers. Now he has a new team--the tough, mostly-female Squad Nine. But one certain female haunts his dreams and stars in his darkest fantasies. Sienna is his sunshine in the darkness. He wants to her to be happy...and he knows that would never be with a man like him. A man with darker, rougher tastes that would shock her.

As Squad Nine works to track and destroy a dangerous alien device, best friends collide. Theron introduces Sienna to a world of rough, edgy passion that she craves. But as a mission goes off track, the two of them will risk everything for love, for their lives, and to save the world.

My Review:

I absolutely adore this series. I open each entry with the sure and certain knowledge that I’m in for a good time. But I think it’s time for the series to end.

Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a rip-roaring good time with Theron and Sienna, because I most certainly did.

The Hell Squad series, which begins with a roar and a bang and a whole lot of gunfire in Marcus, is post-apocalyptic science fiction romance. The apocalypse that these events are post of is the invasion of the alien Gizzida and their ongoing attempt to bomb Earth back to the Stone Age while capturing and converting as many humans as possible into Gizzida.

Think Borg, but with more individual free will. Which often translates to even more cruelty and ambition, and even less conscience. And I never thought I’d say that anything had less conscience than the Borg. But individual Borg aren’t aware of the horror of their actions, and individual Gizzida are.

Each story in this series pushes the human agenda of getting the Gizzida off our planet just a tiny bit further, while featuring a romance between two of the many characters who are fighting back against the invaders with everything they have.

In Theron, the alien invasion part of the story revolves around a daring raid on the Australian Gizzida headquarters, with the first order of business to destroy the alien mind control device they are building, and the second order to investigate the rumored superweapon that the Gizzida are developing. The scary thing is that the giant mind control weapon is not the superweapon.

The romance is between Theron and Sienna, two members of Squad Nine. The Squads are the military arm of the resistance, and Theron and Sienna are two of their best. They are also partners in the squad, best friends, and always have each other’s backs in a fight.

And they not-so-secretly want to bang each other’s brains out. I’d say they were also secretly in love with each other, but part of the secret is that neither of them is willing to explore those feelings. They are both suffering from a whole lot of survivor’s’ guilt like pretty much everyone in the Enclave, and they are rightfully afraid that attempting to be anything more to each other will mess up their friendship.

There’s a betting pool on whether and when they will finally give in to each other. Can someone manage to win the pot before it’s too late for them all?

Escape Rating B+: I enjoy each outing in this series, but I can kind of see the patterns coming. Theron and Sienna’s story is a combination of the romances in Marcus and Shaw. Marcus thinks he’s too big and bad-assed for former society princess Elle, and Shaw and Frost are squad partners and friends who are afraid to mess up what they already have for something that might not work out.

Theron is sure he’s too rough for Sienna, and they are both afraid of messing up their partnership for a relationship that might not work out. While I’ve enjoyed each individual relationship, the predictability of the patterns is getting to me. I’m glad there was a few months break between Devlin and Theron.

So it’s the science fiction aspects of this SFR series that keep me going. I really, really, really want to see the Gizzida get kicked off of Earth. And I read each book in the series for the clues about how that longed-for event is finally going to happen.

But there’s something about the Gizzida that made me think. I compared them to the Borg, because that’s who they initially reminded me of. Both species conquer planets purely so they can mine those planets’ resources, and in both species those resources include any desirable DNA characteristics they can add to their own species to upgrade it. In both cases their process is to turn the conquered people into themselves. Borg make more Borg by turning other species into Borg, and Gizzida do the same thing.

Science fiction has managed to discover what feels like a literal “fate worse than death”. Not to be killed, or to suffer a terrible trauma that changes you forever, but to have your entire selfhood erased and converted to the enemy. I’m playing Mass Effect Andromeda right now, and it also explores this same theme, as did the original Mass Effect Trilogy. The worst fate in the universe is not to die, but to be permanently and irrevocably converted into the enemy.

The Gizzida are part of a fine and frightening trend in SF, and I want them kicked off Earth ASAP. But I suspect that our heroes are going to have to suffer through even more awful revelations before that glorious day.