Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary MercyBefore we start, let me say that this is the last book of a trilogy and as such I am probably going to spoil important plot points for the first two books. If you haven’t read any of these books but are interested in the phrase “person who used to be a space ship”, go back and read the first book, Ancillary Justice, and I’ll see you when you’ve caught up to this one. For those who have read the series, or those who just like to read my ramblings, let’s talk about this last book!

I mentioned when I read the second book, Ancillary Sword, that I loved the first book’s intrigue and subterfuge and fast-moving plot but preferred the second book’s lazier attitude toward the whole gender-as-a-language-construct thing. Interestingly, this book goes back to the high-stakes adventure but also falls back into close scrutiny, not of language this time but of the relationship between a Ship as an entity and its ancillaries or faux ancillaries, leading to a lot of “Kalr Five said, no, Ship said” remarks that are largely unnecessary. So, ups and downs.

We keep the intrigue and subterfuge bits, picking up more or less where the second book left off with the rebuilding of the Undergarden and the political process of smoothing all appropriate feathers to just allow the same people who lived there before to live there again. Ah, the sweet smell of gentrification.

The action part in this novel is driven by the arrival on Athoek Station of Anaander Mianaai, or, you know, part of her or whatever, and Breq’s (our person who used to be a spaceship) desire to have all parts of her dead. To get this done Breq undoes most of the damage that Anaander has done to the various Ship and Station AIs and sort of… liberates them in the process.

That liberation leads to the moral crux of the novel, which is whether artificial intelligence is sort of the same as regular intelligence and how we treat ships (and, say, people) that we view as part of the furniture and the casual, uh, ship-ism?, that all humans participate in whether they realize it or have realization forced upon them.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book, nearly as much as I did the first installment. The balance between action and thinkyness is nearly perfect, save for the repetitive bits and a little bit at the end when everything wraps up (-ish), and of course I could probably read about Breq reading the phone book and find it absolutely fascinating. She’s a person! Who used to be a spaceship! Who used to be a person! Aaaah, I love the conceit of this series.

Ahem. If you’ve read and liked the other books, and especially if you were a little down on the second one for being a bit slow, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you haven’t read the other books, what are you waiting for (besides the library to open)?

Recommendation: For fans of this series, thinky space dramas, and books about human faults sneakily disguised as SCIENCE!

Rating: 9/10 (with partial bonus points for being an awesome series)

The End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

Armada, by Ernest Cline

ArmadaNote: If you are super excited about reading this book, go read it and then come back here. It’s a very spoilable book and I don’t want to ruin your adventure!

So. A couple years back the husband and I listened to Ready Player One on a road trip and liked it quite a bit, and then earlier this year my book club read it and the discussion got me excited about it all over again. So when I had a chance to read Armada, I jumped right on it, and it became my featured reading for a recent plane journey. Tellingly, although I didn’t finish the book on the trip out, I was perfectly content to wait until the return flight to crack it open and finish it.

Armada opens with our main character, Zack Lightman, seeing something that he couldn’t be seeing: a giant warship from his favorite video game zooming around outside his school. Zack thinks he might be going crazy like his father was before he died, his father being convinced that the government was using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion. But of course, just as Zack convinces himself that everything will be fine if he just lays off the video games for a while, it turns out that, well, the government has been using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion, and that Zack’s prowess at those games is getting him recruited into the military to fight an invasion starting in, oh, hours.

And that’s a peachy keen plot, as plots go, and I certainly found myself eager to get to the next page and find out what would happen next. But the style and characters? Oof, I just could not even.

The biggest problem that I had with the book is that it knows that it’s ripping off The Last Starfighter and every other movie or book with the same plot, and it tells you that it knows that it’s ripping them off, and so you think it’s going to neatly subvert the tropes and failings of those stories but it just… doesn’t. Everything that you think is going to happen in this book happens, and any time a character is like, “This thing that is happening is very predictable” you can rest assured that it will remain so. Which, okay, that’s unpredictable in and of itself, so points to you, Ernie Cline, but goodness it is boring.

Also boring are the characters, pulled directly from stock and dropped in this novel. Nerdy video gamer protagonist? Check. Nerdy video gamer best friends? Check. Nerdy video-game-store owner who hates his customers? Check. Loving single mother? Check. Uber-nerd computer hacker? Check. Mission-focused general? Check. The one unpredictable thing in the whole book is that the author actually respects his female characters, all two of them, giving them the same agency he gives the dudes (admittedly, not much) and leaving out any potential damsel-in-distress scenes.

So, I mean, I liked it. I enjoyed the reading experience and I liked the suspense of wondering how things would play out. But I hated the way it actually did play out, and if throwing my Kindle across an airplane wasn’t such a terrible idea in so many ways, it might have actually happened. Part of me wants to go back and try it again (it’s not a terribly long book) and see how I so badly managed to miss whatever the point of the book was, but the rest of me is like, no, life is too short, so I’m going to need those of you who have read and loved and/or gotten this book to tell me where I went wrong!

Recommendation: For fans of video games, Ernie Cline, and books that are only plot.

Rating: 6/10

Trillium, by Jeff Lemire

TrilliumI can’t remember where I first read about this comic mini-series, but whatever I read made me think it would be a perfect buy for my library. Now that I’ve read it, well, there are definitely a couple of people I can recommend it to, but not as many as I might have hoped. My library people are not quite as into the super weird as I am, and this is super duper weird.

So there’s a woman, Nika, who is a scientist of some sort on a space base of some sort whose job is to make headway in speaking to the planet’s native inhabitants because they have a bunch of pretty flowers that are the only cure to a terrible terrible plague. Unfortunately, her diplomatic mission is cut short when the plague arrives even closer to her base, so she goes in for a last-ditch effort. To her surprise, she is greeted by hundreds of the formerly well hidden natives, who invite her to eat one of those precious precious flowers, called trillium, and suddenly things get a heck of a lot weirder.

Nika ends up finding a portal of sorts that leads from her base in 3797 to the Amazon jungle in 1921, where she meets a soldier named William, who has been seeking a lost temple, the same one that Nika comes out of. But just as Nika’s colleagues have designs on the trillium flowers, William’s compatriots have plans for the temple that do not involve keeping it sacred. The two of them soon get separated, and as they try to protect themselves and their homes and find each other again, they are beseiged on all sides by people trying to stop them, going so far as to rewrite their histories and swap their lives.

It’s… very confusing. But also pretty cool. The artwork is striking in its sketchy, blocky-ness, with subtly distinct color palettes for each world that become more obvious in some of the crazier panel layouts, including one issue that is read across the top, flipped, and then read across the bottom. I also like that the writer gave the flower-bearing natives an incomprehensible language that is actually just a cryptogram, so that if I were a less lazy person I could indeed figure out what’s up with them. I bet the internet could tell me, though, so problem solved! I also like the way the author subtly plays with gender roles, giving each of the characters equal agency and helplessness, even when their lives are eventually swapped. And the worldbuilding! The space base is okay, but I love what Lemire does with Earth 1921, slowly building it up so that we can see that William is from a completely different Earth than the one we live on. So cool.

I think the best part of this book is that it is a limited eight-issue run, so it has a nice beginning, middle, and end to it when collected. I love my ongoing series, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you just need a neatly packed story, and this is a good one. I will definitely be checking out more from this writer in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of weirdness and spaaaaace.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Comics in Space and also Ghosts

We’ve got a space spoof, a space western spoof, and an incredibly sarcastic horror spoof in the lineup today. Clearly I am taking this weekend very seriously. How about you?

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues, #3-4, by Erik Burnham and Nacho Arranz
Galaxy Quest #3Galaxy Quest #4So, yeah, after last time I was not exactly in a rush to finish off this series, even though it’s been sitting in my house staring at me for a while now. I just thought, you know, if I don’t read it, it might be good! But I needn’t have worried, as apparently this mini-series should have just been three issues instead of four, kicking out that terrible second one.

In the third issue, we get right down to it, showing up at the alien planet, making some wisecracks about science fiction conventions (not… not like cons, but like, tropes and stuff), and fighting a giant alien monster. Woo fighting alien monsters! It’s all very exciting and also a little super gross. In the fourth issue, our heroes finally make it to the thing they’re supposed to destroy and, spoilers, destroy the heck out of it. But with style! Lots of style, and wisecracks. Style, wisecracks, and potentially terrible mistakes. And then there’s a not-quite-cliffhanger at the end to pave the way for future issues.

I have to say, except for that terrible second issue, this was really super delightful. I love Galaxy Quest and many of the things it spoofs, and if you do, too, there’s no way to go wrong with this. But I’m thinking if another mini-run shows up at the comic store, I might hold off until the trade shows up. Those filler issues are rough!

Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, #2: “The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson, Part Two”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada #2Let’s be real, I love Sparks Nevada (and Sparks Nevada) and this issue could have been just him saying “I’m…. from earth” in every panel and I would be stupidly amused. But this was even better than that!

We pick up with Sparks’s party turned to glass and the bad guys chasing after him and Croach while also striving to be respectful of Mars’s culture and natural features. So considerate! There’s bad guy infighting, careful onus calculation, a trip through the never-before-mentioned (or possibly I wasn’t paying attention) Martian underground cities, trampolines, and some weird Martian planet thing that is, according to Sparks, sogross. Poor, poor Sparks.

Beyond Belief, #1: “The Donna Party”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #1Woo! It’s finally time to send the little ones to dreamland and see what those lovely Doyles actually look like! Unsurprisingly, Sadie looks rather like Paget Brewster, but it only now occurs to me how completely incongruous it is that she and Frank, perpetually dressed to the nines and carrying martini glasses, would be fighting ghosts. You’d think Sadie’d at least change into a comfy pair of pants or something.

But, regardless, they take their natty selves where they are needed, and in this issue they are needed at the home of Sadie’s friend Donna, who has moved into a house that is absolutely delightful except for the part where it’s haunted. Frank and Sadie arrive to discover a host of creepy-pants dolls ready to have a never-ending tea party with them, but of course they figure out the root of the problem and send one poor, beleaguered spirit and his slightly crazy spirit wife back to where they belong. Then there’s a little lead in to what might be the next issue, which will be weird if it’s true because the podcast story is mostly self-contained. We shall see…

And, as in the first Sparks Nevada issue, there is an extra issue #0 tacked on to tell the story of how Frank and Sadie met, which I must admit was a little strange and underwhelming. I much prefer their vomit-inducingly adorable current relationship to any other way they might ever have acted, so I’m gonna stick with it.

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary SwordI read Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last summer and loved the heck out of it even though I was absolutely baffled by almost all of it. Person who used to be a spaceship? Difficulties in using gendered language? Political machinations? Awesome and also mind-breaking.

I think Leckie and/or her publishers figured that out, because this novel is differently structured and much easier to read. Our main character, Breq, still used to be a spaceship, but we’re only focused on her present as an individual person so there’s not as much of the switching back and forth between points of view (although there is still some). She’s also primarily hanging out with the single-gender-pronoun people, so everyone’s a she and that’s just how it is, no explanations on every other page. And even the political machinations are simpler, with most of the subterfuge showing up early and the narrative having plenty of time to explain what’s going on. Huzzah!

In this installment, Breq is sent by the leader of the Radch (civilization, more or less) to check out a station for, um, reasons?, and when she gets there she finds herself embroiled in some weirdness from another ship stationed there, some class warfare on the station itself, and more class warfare on the planet below. Breq spends most of her time trying to make things better for all the inhabitants of the area by working to improve their living conditions, trying to talk sense into those who would discriminate for arbitrary reasons, and taking various stands against stupidity.

This book is not nearly as page-turning and exciting and crazypants as the first book, but it does have a nice slow-burning plotline in the weird spaceship at the beginning and there is constant tension between Breq and pretty much everyone else in the story that keeps things interesting. I really love the world that Leckie has created and it was great to spend time in it again.

Recommendation: For fans of the first book, which you probably should read before this one, but also fans of space machinations in general.

Rating: 8/10