Review: The Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead

Review: The Chaos Function by Jack SkillingsteadThe Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, thriller, time travel
Pages: 304
Published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For readers of the best‑selling novels Sleeping Giants and Dark Matter, an intense, high‑stakes thriller with a science‑fiction twist that asks: If technology enabled you to save the life of someone you love, would you do so even if it might doom millions?   Olivia Nikitas, a hardened journalist whose specialty is war zones, has been reporting from the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. When Brian, an aid worker she reluctantly fell in love with, dies while following her into danger, she’ll do anything to bring him back. In a makeshift death chamber beneath an ancient, sacred site, a strange technology is revealed to Olivia: the power to remake the future by changing the past.    Following her heart and not her head, Olivia brings Brian back, accidentally shifting the world to the brink of nuclear and biological disaster. Now she must stay steps ahead of the guardians of this technology, who will kill her to reclaim it, in order to save not just herself and her love, but the whole world.

My Review:

There’s a quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that goes,

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

This is a story about what happens when someone has the power to lure that Moving Finger back to cancel more than half a line – but does not – as no human does – have the wisdom to determine whether that cancellation was, or was not, the right thing to do.

This book was simply a wow.

Of course, it’s also just a bit more complicated than that. Also just saying it’s a wow isn’t really an informative review – although it certainly is succinct.

At first, this seems like a near-future dystopian novel, until it isn’t. And then it is again. And then it isn’t.

Still confused? I think it’s intentional – at least on the part of the story.

Olivia is an investigative journalist chasing a story in Aleppo, Syria, just a little more than a decade from now. Her world doesn’t feel much different from ours in time, only in place. The seemingly permanent, perpetual civil war/uprising/revolution/counterinsurgency/whatever that she is covering is worlds away from the comfortable life that still very much exists back in the US.

But Olivia makes her living covering what she calls the “Disaster”. A disaster that could be anywhere, and often is – just not back home. Also a disaster that seems to be a direct consequence of actions taken in our present, as the Syrian conflict that she is covering is the war to overthrow Assad, which has its roots in our now.

She’s attempting to cover violations of the current, tentative peace agreement when she, her guide and her aid worker-lover get caught in the crossfire – and the world changes.

And changes again. And again. And it’s all Olivia’s fault… Really, it is.

Brian is killed in that crossfire, and Olivia finds herself in the basement of the building she was trying to investigate, his blood still on her hands, when she finds an old man who has been tortured taking his last breaths. Something jumps from his corpse to her living body, and burrows itself into her brain.

When she makes a wish that Brian hadn’t died – he isn’t dead. But the world has changed, and not for the better.

That’s the point where things get very, very hairy. And then they get worse.

Since it’s all Olivia’s fault, it’s up to her to fix it if she can. Because the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few or of the one – even if that one is someone she loves.

Escape Rating A+: This is still a wow.

I believe that the reason this is such a wow is that there are multiple ways to look at the story, all of them equally valid – as they should be. This is, after all, a story about the butterfly effect – for a butterfly with extremely large wings.

From the very beginning, I saw multiple connections to this story. Something about the atmosphere in war-torn Aleppo recalled for me the atmosphere of The Children of Men by P.D. James. The stories aren’t actually alike, but the worlds felt similar.

Once Olivia discovers her ability to change the future, the way that it worked was extremely similar to Ia’s ability in the military SF series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Like Ia, Olivia is trying to find the best of all possible outcomes, no matter how slim a chance it is, and make it happen. The difference is that Ia knows how to use her power, and Olivia most definitely does not.

But it’s the different, and all equally awful, portraits of the way that the world goes mad that push the story forward at breakneck speed. Each of Olivia’s attempts to save Brian results in greater and greater disasters. A weaponized smallpox epidemic. Nuclear powers, blaming each other, fingers on too many triggers, wiping out each other’s major cities and food producing regions. And it gets worse from there.

(I haven’t seen the world go so far past hell in a handbasket so fast since the early books in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse)

The source of Olivia’s new-found power throws in a cult of conspiracy theorists as well as a chase around the world. The ability to control the future is a power that has been closely guarded – and extremely contested – for centuries. And no one’s vision of “better” remotely resembles anyone else’s.

But there’s a reason why I started with Omar Khayyam and ended with Spock. Because the story in The Chaos Function is also, writ large and with even more deadly consequences, the story of the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. And the ending is just as necessary, and just as heartbreaking.

Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan CampThe City of Lost Fortunes (Crescent City #1) by Bryan Camp
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Crescent City #1
Pages: 367
Published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 17, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The fate of New Orleans rests in the hands of a wayward grifter in this novel of gods, games, and monsters.

The post–Katrina New Orleans of The City of Lost Fortunes is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be more than human.

Jude has been lying low since the storm, which caused so many things to be lost that it played havoc with his magic, and he is hiding from his own power, his divine former employer, and a debt owed to the Fortune god of New Orleans. But his six-year retirement ends abruptly when the Fortune god is murdered and Jude is drawn back into the world he tried so desperately to leave behind. A world full of magic, monsters, and miracles. A world where he must find out who is responsible for the Fortune god’s death, uncover the plot that threatens the city’s soul, and discover what his talent for lost things has always been trying to show him: what it means to be his father’s son.

My Review:

This is one of those “throw a bunch of books in a blender” things. In this particular case I’d be throwing American Gods, The Map of Moments, possibly some Nightside or Iron Druid or Eric Carter and any halfway decent guide to the Tarot, and I think I’d end up with something like The City of Lost Fortunes. As long as I included a tip of the hat to The Empire Strikes Back.

Not that it’s a bad blend by any means. Except for the necessity of the Tarot guidebook, I love all those stories. But that doesn’t mean that this one isn’t a bit derivative. But still eminently readable..

And I have a long running “thing” for books set in New Orleans. So there you go. Or here I am. Or there we are. All of the above.

This is a story about post-Katrina New Orleans, like The Map of Moments or Royal Street. And even though in this particular story Katrina is several years in the past, the breaking of the levees and the diaspora of its people is still a very present force in the city. Something was lost in the storm – something that still hasn’t come back. In spite of, or perhaps because of, all of the rebuilding.

Jude Dubuisson is the protagonist of this story. A hero he isn’t. Anti-hero is probably a lot closer to the mark – or at least that’s the role he grows into over the course of the story. At the beginning, Jude is mostly just a loser, scared of his own magic and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

And it’s ironic that Jude begins as such a loser, because his gift, his magic, is his ability to find lost things. He can find the earrings you lost last week, the child who was kidnapped last month, or the soul that you signed away decades ago.

There’s someone on the supernatural side of New Orleans who needs Jude to find what the city has lost – before someone with less benign intentions finds that something and twists it to their own purposes.

Jude is supposed to play the game, and lose. He doesn’t even know what the rules are. By the time he figures out that the stakes are his soul, he’s already all the way in – and halfway back to the person he was meant to be.

The question is whether or not he has enough tricks up his sleeve to solve all the puzzles before the puzzles solve him. And just how much of a son of a Trickster he truly is.

Escape Rating B+: In the end, this story really got to me. Once Jude finally figures out what he really is and what he is meant to be, the final chapters are a wild ride that leads to a marvelously satisfying conclusion.

But the book still reminded me a bit too much of the stories that make up its gumbo flavor to stand up to an A grade – but it was close.

Although the feel of this book is that of a gritty urban fantasy, complete with snarky noir-ish detective, the ambience felt so much like American Gods, just writ on a slightly smaller scale – New Orleans instead of the entire American continent  But The City of Lost Fortunes is still a story of gods and monsters and hidden agendas and powerful beings that hide in plain sight and manipulate events to suit themselves.

There’s even a hidden Trickster pulling the strings behind the scenes, but unlike Low-Key Liesmith in American Gods, I recognized just who S. Mourning was from his first appearance.

Because this is New Orleans, in addition to the more usual pantheon of gods and monsters, the loa of Louisiana Voodoo play a big part of the story, both as guides to the perpetually perplexed (our “hero”) and as movers and shakers of events – even if some of their moving and shaking serves merely to upset other beings’ apple carts.

Jude Dubuisson is an interesting choice for a hero, or even an anti-hero. On the one hand, he certainly has a LOT of growing to do. He hasn’t been able to accept who and what he is, and has been kind of in hiding from himself since Katrina. I want to say he’s lost his mojo, but that really doesn’t cover it. It’s more like he deliberately threw his mojo away, and isn’t sure he ever wants it back. Once his choices are finally reduced to take it back and maybe get out of this mess in one piece or die AND lose his soul (these are not necessarily the same thing) he finally looks for what he himself has deliberately lost.

He also spends a significant part of the story lost in other meanings of the word lost. It is certainly a metaphor for his gift, but it is also the kind of lost that gives readers headaches. It’s not merely that he doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, but the reasons why it needs to be done or even what “it” is are obscured from both the protagonist and the reader.

In other words, Jude is confused for the longest time, and so are we. Following him as he grasps and gropes at what the problem is and whether or not he can find or trick his way into a solution is the story.

And in the end, it works. It really, really works. Sometimes a bowl of gumbo is exactly what you have a taste for – reading-wise or otherwise.