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Jessica Strider (Toronto, Canada)

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The Martian: A Novel
The Martian: A Novel
by Andy Weir
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 17.56
39 used & new from CDN$ 14.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Tense survivalist hard SF, Jan. 20 2015
This review is from: The Martian: A Novel (Hardcover)
Pros: tense, compelling, humerous, hard sf

Cons: swearing, some exposition

Mark Watney is presumed dead after being hit by flying debris and having his suit depressurize during the evacuation of the Ares 3 mission on Mars in a dust storm. But hours after his crew departs on the only ship, Mark wakes up. Now he’s alone on Mars with no way home and supplies only designed to last a crew of 6 for 31 days.

This is a novel of survival under extreme conditions. It’s predominately told from Mark’s point of view via daily journal entries. Mark is a resourceful man with a dry sense of humour, which helps keep the novel upbeat even though things are constantly dire. It’s a compelling book that’s hard to put down with lots of tense moments.

It’s also hard science fiction, meaning there’s a good amount of science explanation and mathmatics going on. Most of the time it’s quick and engagingly told (often using humour). Communications are reproduced with the time lag and flight times are dictated by real physics. According to an interview I read by him the only scientifically inaccurate point in the book is the dust storm on Mars at the beginning of the book.

There’s a fair bit of swearing, which I’m not keen on, but a lot of it was understandable given the circumstances. My only other complaint is that a lot of necessary information was given in conversations in ways that - though they worked in the text - would sound odd in real life. So, for example, people would say things like “It’s nice to be back in Houston.”, rather than simply “It’s nice to be back.”, so the reader would know where the conversation was happening. Similarly, people often explained things to coworkers that their coworkers should know, like how various scientific things work, or what they’re called, so that the reader would learn this information. It’s a catch-22 in that the reader needs the information and there are only 2 ways to get it across, via dialogue or exposition. Dialogue is the more interesting way of reading it, so he made the right choice. And most people won’t notice he did this, they’ll just enjoy the fast paced story.

This is a fantastic book and I can understand why it made so many top 10 lists for 2014 and why it’s been optioned for film.

The Providence of Fire
The Providence of Fire
by Brian Staveley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.38
35 used & new from CDN$ 20.38

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly enjoyable second book. Can't wait for the third!, Jan. 13 2015
This review is from: The Providence of Fire (Hardcover)
Pros: lots of intrigue, lots of action, lots of unexpected plot twists, fascinating characters, brilliant writing

Cons: middle drags a bit, lots of swearing

Note: this is book two of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, and as such both the synopsis and review contain spoilers for book one. If you haven’t read The Emperor’s Blades, it’s a fantastic fantasy novel.

Picking up immediately where The Emperor’s Blades left off, the novel continues to follow the murdered Emperor Sunlitan’s children: Kaden, heir to the throne, is now able to enter the vaniate and use the Kenta gates built by the Csestriim; Valyn, is considered a traitor by the Ketral under whom he studied for the past 10 years, learning how to kill to protect the Empire; and Adare, who leaves the capital to find an army she can use to wrestle power from the general il Tornja.

There is so much going on in this book. The characters all travel a lot to get closer to their various aims, discover those aims need to change, and in the course of the book change drastically as people. It’s fantastic seeing characters react to situations based on limited and often faulty information, make decisions that affect their future - often very negatively - and watch them muddle through. The book feels more like reading history than a structured work of writing. Alliances change, trust is misplaced and/or broken, characters do things they regret and see things they’re helpless to stop.

Several battles pepper the book and the climax revolves around a war. There’s a lot of action, blood and gore. There’s also a lot of politicking, much of which went in directions I did not expect, especially in Kaden’s storyline.

The characters are varied in how they act, react and change. They remain entertaining and engaging throughout the novel, though I did find that the middle of the book dragged a bit, especially around some of Adare’s arc. The ending was fantastic though, and sets things up for what ought to be an amazing third book.

There is a lot of swearing, which fits the characters but isn’t something I’m particularly keen on. I’d place this on the lighter side of grimdark, because most of the characters remain sympathetic, even as they often end up doing horrible things. It feels like a cross between Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and the Coin series.

I really recommend this series.

by Tina Connolly
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.36
27 used & new from CDN$ 8.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Features a different kind of heroine., Dec 23 2014
This review is from: Copperhead (Paperback)
Pros: Helen’s a complex character, interesting plot

Cons: Alastair’s mistreatment of Helen is more told than shown

Helen Huntingdon’s husband is part of Copperhead, an organization that aims to rid the city of the fae - and the dwarvven. Under his direction she replaced her normal face with a fae one, an act that now leaves her in peril of being overtaken by the fae and having her own existence wiped out. She’s not alone, almost 100 other influential women in the city have had the same operation.

Helen brings her sister Jane to a Copperhead meeting in order to remove the fae mask of the host’s wife, but when the host turns on their new weapon against the fae, something goes horribly wrong. The wife is left in a fae trance while Jane, accused of murdering the woman, has disappeared. Helen must convince the rest of the 100 fae faced women to have the operation to return their original faces while she searches for her missing sister, because it sounds like the fae are gearing up for another attack.

Helen is a great character. While Jane, the protagonist of the first book, and her older sister, is direct and often tactless with her sense of right and wrong, Helen has learned to manipulate the people around her into thinking she’s a bit empty-headed and have them do things for her when she smiles and flirts. She feels guilty that she wasn’t brave enough to join the fae war like Jane, and resentful that Jane left her - at 13 - to watch their mother die of a slow illness afterwards. Helen doesn’t want to responsibility that’s left with her when Jane disappears. She wants to be shallow, discussing fashion with other socialite women, dancing, and flirting. She wants to find Jane so she can hand over the fate of the 100. But when push comes to shove - again and again and again - she knuckles down and does when she has to. Indeed, as the book progresses you discover how much of her flirtatious attitude masks insecurity and how capable she really is when she trusts herself. We learn what she actually did after the war - how she helped and what decisions she made that trapped her in the present, with a husband who isn’t who she thought he was. It’s fascinating seeing the different sides of her, and watching her decide who she wants to be moving forward. It’s a story about seeing yourself as you truly are and accepting the good and bad in you. It’s a story about growth.

The Copperhead plot was pretty interesting, as was the mystery of what happened to Jane and the danger facing the city. There’s a touch of romance that develops organically from the story. In addition to Helen there are a number of other interesting women who play a large part of the story. It’s cool to see female friendships and interactions in a fantasy setting.

I felt that Helen and Alastair’s relationship wasn’t as well defined in the book as it could have been. There’s more telling than showing to indicate that their relationship is bad. Early on he takes her mask - the only thing that keeps her safe from being taken over by the fae when outside. He sees it as a way of protecting her. She sees it as a way of controlling her. Without other interactions it’s hard to know if she is being unreasonably restricted by him (I’d argue she isn’t considering how easy it is for her to sneak out). Only later in the book do we see his darker side, but even then, some of the revelations about him at the climax still came as something of a shock to me.

As much as I enjoyed Ironskin I have to admit I liked Copperhead more. Perhaps it was because the story was more original, perhaps it was because Helen was such a delightful character to get to know. I’m really enjoying this series and look forward to finishing it off in Silverblind.

by Emma Pass
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 14.43
36 used & new from CDN$ 7.93

4.0 out of 5 stars A quick paced book with some very tense moments., Dec 9 2014
This review is from: ACID (Hardcover)
Pros: quick paced, interesting protagonist, several plot twists, minor romantic elements

Cons: elements of the ending were problematic

For Parents: kissing, violence, nothing graphic

Seventeen year old Jenna Strong has spent the last 2 years in prison for the murder of her parents, agents of ACID (Agency for Crime Investigation and Defense), because she didn’t like the boy they’d picked to be her LifePartner. Sprung by a mysterious organization for reasons she doesn’t understand, her life outside quickly goes downhill.

Jenna’s an interesting character in that she’s sympathetic for readers, but apparently quite prickly to people around her in the book. She’s standoffish and quickly alienates several of the people trying to help her, though in her defense, she’s given little reason to trust the people helping her. She’s pretty street smart, though she does make some decisions that cause her serious problems.

While I saw a few plot twists coming the book goes in a lot of directions I did not anticipate, making it a fun book to read.

There are minor romantic elements that enhance what’s happening with Jenna without becoming the focus of the story. And while there is some kissing, there’s no other sexual content.

There’s a variety of violence in the book (which involves some prison scenes, an interrogation, bombing and more) nothing is graphically described.

Part of the ending required Jenna to be an angry teen who doesn’t care that the adults around her know more about what’s happening than she does and are better prepared than she is, just that they’re not doing what she wants, which was kind of annoying. It also depended on an adult making some very stupid decisions, which I questioned while I was reading. Having said that, I did like the ultimate resolution.

It’s a quick paced book with some very tense moments.

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century
The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century
by William Rosen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.69
28 used & new from CDN$ 11.72

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars War, Famine and Pestilence at their worst, Dec 5 2014
Pros: lots of information, political components told like a story with digressions on economics, weather, etc.,

Cons: I personally found the weather talk - though essential to the subject of the book - dryly told and boringly technical

This is an examination of the effects of the end of the medieval warm period during the reign of King Edward II of England. The book gives some background into the population explosion and increased farming that took place during the 400 hundred years when Europe experienced warmer temperatures (including the Viking expansion into Greenland), before delving into the political trials England faced at the time. Much of the book is given over to the war between England and Scotland and how it affected politics (Scotland allied with France at times to force England to back off) and economics (Scotland raided the English border over and over again, forcing the king to raise armies, draining his coffers). Two chapters - of particular interest to me - detailed the effects of the wet, cold weather on crops and the diseases that accompanied the resulting famines, decimating herds across England and the Continent.

While I found some of the weather discourse too technical and therefore boring, the rest of the book was very readable and fascinating.

If you’re interested in how politics and the weather can combine to created a famine, and what else famine brings with it, this is a great book. Similarly, if the politics of England and Scotland or the lives and times of Edward the first and, predominantly the second, interest you, then definitely give this book a go.

Thor: The Viking God of Thunder (Myths and Legends)
Thor: The Viking God of Thunder (Myths and Legends)
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent rundown of Thor in Norse Mythology, Dec 2 2014
Pros: thorough, entertaining, educational, lots of illustrations

Cons: mentions religious reconstruction using archaeology but doesn’t give much information about what’s been discovered, drawings of some Viking artefacts rather than photographs

This is a great introduction to Norse mythology on the whole and an excellent one if you’re interested in Thor in particular. There’s a one page rundown of important characters and another with places. The source materials of the myths are briefly discussed, specifically the Poetic and Prose Edda, and during the retellings the author often pauses to explain cultural and situational material necessary for understanding what’s going on.

The stories themselves are quite entertaining, though while Thor’s exploits against the giants are referred to, there’s little description of those battles.

There are a good number of newly commissioned and older artworks illustrating the stories. I would have liked to see some photographs of archaeological finds rather than drawings though.

The author mentions that the sources are light when it comes to how the Norse gods were worshiped but that archaeology has started shedding light on this issue, but doesn’t mention any of the finds or what we’ve learned about their religious practices from them. The author does, however, mention information about religious practices that have survived in written form (eg. Tacitus).

The final chapter deals with how myths of Thor have been used in modern times, like how they were co-opted by the Nazi party when trying to create a sense of nationalism for Germany after World War I. It also goes into Thor’s portrayal in comics and movies.

If you don’t know much about Norse mythology or Thor, this is an excellent book to get you up to speed.

The Genome: A Novel
The Genome: A Novel
by Sergei Lukyanenko
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.19
12 used & new from CDN$ 15.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Glad I read it, not sure I'd read it again., Dec 2 2014
This review is from: The Genome: A Novel (Paperback)
Pros: interesting & diverse characters, solid world-building, some thought provoking philosophy

Cons: several highly disturbing (though not graphic) scenes, Lolita style relationship

Five months after a devastating accident that physically cut him in half, Alexander Romanov is released from the hospital. With little money and no plans, he encounters a young girl nearing her spesh metamorphosis and - due to the programming inherent in his pilot spesh - has to help her out. He takes a job as a ship captain to help pay for the treatment she needs and, once she’s done her metamorphosis, assembles a crew for an unknown mission.

The book is split into three sections. The first section introduces the characters, the second deals with the fallout of discovering their mission, and the third revolves around a mystery. While I really enjoyed the first two parts, the third got irritating as two of the characters claim to have solved the mystery but refuse to explain what happened, presumably so the reader has time to put the clues together. It felt artificial, though there is a reason given for their delay in the text. The resolution was interesting as it referred back to several of the philosophical questions the book as a whole posed.

The world-building in this book is solid. There are four groups at play: 1. Natural, unmodified humans 2. Speshs, people whose parents decide before birth what specialized job their child should have, and are then genetically modified physically and psychologically to do the work and enjoy it. 3. Clones. And 4. the Others, several alien races that have interactions with humans. You’ll also encounter human politics, with a child Emperor, various religions (and religious extremism), numerous branches of racism, etc. Different planets have different specialties, atmospheres, and customs, while travel between planets is done using hyper-tunnels and takes a surprisingly short amount of time.

For the most part I liked all the characters, at the beginning at least. The captain’s a great POV character. I love his demon tattoo (and what it does for him), and the way he analyses his world, questioning the way things are, even when he’s ok with the way things are. Kim’s a great character, though I did have issues with her… relationship with the captain (and others, as her being 14 and having sex with people significantly older wasn’t something I’m comfortable with, even if the characters - for the most part - considered it normal, or at least, not unusual). Her specializations made her self-assured, despite her lack of experience. Janet was my favourite character until the half-way point when her upbringing came to the fore. I liked that she’d taken charge of her life, getting several specializations and was willing to be a mentor for Kim.

The one character I didn’t much like was Puck. His antagonistic attitude and desire to prove that a natural human could be just as good as a spesh made him kind of irritating. I did, however, appreciate that he was gay and that his being natural showed off the prejudices of his crewmates.

This is a book that makes you think, though some of the scenes that open the way to philosophical discussion are disturbing to say the least. While nothing’s particularly graphic there are mentions of rape, slavery, and war. I could easily see this being put on university reading lists and/or used for book clubs, as there are some very interesting essay and discussion topics brought up, particularly around genetic modifications and freedom. So, for example, as disturbing as I found the hunting scene, I did appreciate the questions about class, ethics and humanity that the captain ruminated on that arose from it.

In addition to her relationships, I had a few issues with what happened to Kim at the end of the book.

I’m not sure I would want to read it again, but it was an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable, book to read.

by Tina Connolly
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 6.80

4.0 out of 5 stars A fun fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre, Nov. 24 2014
This review is from: Ironskin (Paperback)
Pros: interesting world-building, great protagonist

Cons: banter between Jane and Rochart didn’t quite match Jane and Rochester

Jane Eliot has worn an iron mask over half of her face since the end of the fae war 5 years ago, when she was cursed with rage. The mask keeps the rage at bay, but marks her as an ironskin, a reminder of worse times, and shunned by society. Upon the engagement of her sister to an aristocrat greatly above their station, she takes a post as governess to a young girl who’s… different. Jane believes she knows how to reach the child, but Dorie is not an ironskin like Jane. And as Jane starts to fall for her brooding new master, she wonders if she’s the right person to help Dorie after all.

This is a fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre. But while the plot remains largely the same, there are a lot of major and minor differences. At times when she diverges from Jane Eyre, Connolly writes in a nod to the original. For example, Jane in this one never went to a boarding school, but she did teach at one and comments that she’s glad she never had to attend it, given the horrible conditions the girls faced. The ending is noticeably different, so don’t think that having read Jane Eyre will preclude your enjoying this book or remove all the plot surprises.

I really enjoyed the fae aspects of the book, from the war to the curse to learning about the dwarvven and their interactions with the fae. I liked that the fae had understandable reasons for the war (that you discover at the end of the book). And I liked that the book kept much of the traditional view of fairy stories (the Irish and Welsh versions where someone who know someone was kidnapped by the fairies and later returned), rather than modern literary fairy tales.

Jane, as with her namesake, was a great protagonist. Though young she’s determined and hard working, stubborn and loving. I didn’t feel the same connection between her and Rochart as I did between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, their banter not hitting quite the same notes, but the relationship did grow naturally over time, which I appreciated. Their ending surprised me as things got pretty bleak fast and I wasn’t sure how the author would be able to resolve things.

One of the main divergences from the original is the fact that Jane has a living sister with whom she has a complicated relationship. Both of them envy and resent things about the other. It was nice to see how things developed between them as well as Jane’s relationships with the other female members of the staff.

This is the start of a series and I’m curious to see where the author will take things, as book two is from her sister’s point of view.

The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1
The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1
by Kameron Hurley
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.26
37 used & new from CDN$ 11.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I loved some things and disliked others, but worth the read, Nov. 11 2014
Pros: lots of political intrigue, culturally diverse, brilliant world-building, interesting story

Cons: some issues with genders, several protagonists became unlikeable

The dark star of Oma is rising, infusing power into blood magics that were lost for 2000 years. Dhai on a dying world use that power to form gates to a mirror world they wish to conquer, one like theirs but where history went in a different direction, leaving the Dhai pacifists among more warlike neighbours. But not everyone wants to see their reflections on this new world enslaved, and as more and more people on the imperilled world learn what’s happening, they start fighting back.

There’s a lot going on here and a ton of characters to keep track of, many of whom have similar sounding names. There is a glossary of characters and terms at the back to help you if you forget who someone is. The different nations are all distinct, with vastly different governments, attitudes, cultures, and languages. It was fascinating reading about how each nation dealt with different problems.

The politics of the different nations, and how they interacted, was fascinating. I enjoyed how Hurley brought in past battles and showed that various nations’ wars helped shape the current political climate.

There were a wide variety of characters the story followed (several men and women at different levels of power and skintone). I started off liking most of them, though some of their choices as the book continued made me less sympathetic towards them. In a few cases I ended up respecting what they achieved, even if I didn’t much like them as people anymore.

The magic system of drawing power from stars/satellites, was pretty cool. I liked how that contrasted the satellite plus blood combination necessary for calling on Oma. The deadly flora of the world was also cool to read about.

I did have some issues with the world building, mostly with how gender was used/defined. The Dhai, we are told, use five genders: female-assertive, female-passive, male-assertive, male-passive, and ungendered. I couldn’t understand how being passive vs assertive changed your gender. I understand that you can have a linguistic marker of politeness or class (Japanese uses different pronouns to denote this), but again, how does it change gender? That leaves 3 genders, which is what the Saiduan use, denoting male, female, and ataisa. Why then does Roh, a Dhai, have trouble understanding which pronoun to use for the ataisa when his language has something similar (ungendered)? Yes, the two languages use different words (ze vs hir), but that’s a linguistic difference, not, necessarily a gender difference. I was left wondering if the ataisa and ungendered were in fact different genders, rather than different words for the same ‘doesn’t fit into male or female’ category.

I also disliked how the genders in Dorinah are basically swapped. Women are larger, stronger, better educated, assertive, domineering etc. than men. Men, meanwhile, are only around as possessions, useful for status, sex, and children. They’re weaker and powerless over their own lives, fully submissive to the women who own them (their mothers and wives). I was ok with the idea of gender swapping the country (making it matriarchal), but when you give the men all the stereotypical characteristics of women and all the women the stereotypical characteristics of men, you’re basically saying that traditionally female attributes are weak/useless and male ones are strong/worthwhile. Rather than pitying Anavha, Zezili’s husband, I found myself reviling him, and felt bad about it considering he’s basically a stand in for an 18th century British woman (stereotypically speaking, of course).

I did enjoy the sexual politics of the different countries, how many husbands/wives different groups had and whether that was a matter of status or openness of their cultures. Seeing the Dhai culture’s openness with regards to loving both genders freely was also refreshing. I’d have like to learn more of how the Dhai deal with marriages, as I imagine genealogies would be hard to track with multiple husbands and wives in the same marriage (and an openness to affairs), as would preventing incest (assuming that’s not allowed there, which isn’t a given, considering Ahkio and Liaro are cousins).

Lilia’s actions towards the end of the book felt rushed. While much of the book took time to thoroughly develop things, Lilia manages to take several important actions with little preparation or training, which didn’t seem as realistic as what happened earlier.

This was a slower read for me, mainly because so much was happening. I needed to take my time with the book in order to keep track of everything. It had some things I loved, some things I liked and some things that irritated me. On the whole, it’s a fascinating story with some great in depth world-building and some intricate real world style politics. I’ll be curious to see what happens next.

Ancillary Sword
Ancillary Sword
by Ann Leckie
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.00
34 used & new from CDN$ 8.48

4.0 out of 5 stars A great book, Nov. 4 2014
This review is from: Ancillary Sword (Paperback)
Pros: fascinating characters, interesting narrative approach, develops new world-building aspects

Cons: character driven

A week after the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq, now fleet captain and assigned to Mercy of Kalr, departs on Anaander Mianaai’s orders to Athoek to make sure the system stays safe. In addition to her experienced lieutenants, Seivarden and Ekalu (of the Kalr), she has a new 17 year old one, Tisarwat, to train. Once they arrive at the station, they find a suspicious captain, disturbed by the lack of communication after the attack on Omaugh Palace and the destruction of several gates, racial tensions, and minor issues covering larger problems that need to be addressed.

As with the first book, the real aspect of interest is in how Breq sees the world. You don’t get flash backs to when she was Justice of Toren, though that’s often in her thoughts, instead you get her trying to keep up with frequent run downs of the sort of information she would have have had instantaneously as a ship, sent to her by her ship, Mercy of Kalr. It’s an interesting way of seeing things, and allows Breq to pretend she’s still one part of a larger whole while also being a narrative means of showing the reader what’s happening in places outside Breq’s physical sphere. There is a plot, but in many ways this feels like a character driven novel because Breq’s presence is so overpowering. If you don’t like her unique way of seeing the world, you won’t enjoy this book.

Breq comes across as a tough as nails captain. Sometimes she’s too tough, pushing her crew beyond what she should, something I suspected would eventually cause her problems, but her extensive experience means she’s able to pull back at just the right moment. Even knowing what Breq was trying to do, I thought she was too hard on Tisarwat at times. Not only had the lieutenant been through a traumatic experience with little recovery time, she’s given little to no positive reinforcement when she does things right. So while Tisarwat was an interesting character, seeing her through Breq’s eyes made her less sympathetic than she probably deserved to be. It was fun seeing her grow up and mature.

I was a little surprised at the number of secrets she kept from her crew, her true identity as Justice of Toren and what happened with Tisarwat being the main ones, but it does make sense that the crew might balk at such things, so keeping them secret probably made sense.

There’s more information about how the military works and there’s a unique supporting cast. I enjoyed learning more about the military and political politics, both between the ships but also how it applies to a station and planet once they get to Athoek. I’m hoping we learn more about the Presger in the next book. What little was revealed here merely whet the appetite.

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