Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow
by Xiran Jay Zhao
October 7, 2021

O.O

Wowza.

This book.

The main character is kind of the embodiment of “Are you tired of being nice? don’t you just wanna go apeshit?” Yes. Yes, she does. And thus, so she does.

The book was described as a re-imagining of the life of the only ruling empress of China, Wu Zetian, in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy China that merges Pacific Rim with The Handmaid’s Tale.* There are giant mecha robots piloted by male pilots and powered by female concubines… who don’t tend to survive the process. Wu Zetian is a pretty peasant girl filled with rage. Her older sister was already sold to the army as a concubine and she’s going next, but she’s planning a revenge assassination rather than dutiful self-sacrifice.

In a society telling her that girls and women are naturally gentle and soft, appeasing and submissive, Wu Zetian knows that’s wrong from her own personality. As the book progresses, she peals back more and more layers of her own assumptions, revealing how aspects of the world that seemed like natural laws are instead very much man-made. What seems like basic history, is instead thick layers of propaganda difficult to even find the edges of. With lies and manipulations twisting any understanding of the world, moral decisions are nearly impossible. And the prize after every victory is a more difficult battle.

The whole book is a series of dramatic battles — mental, emotional, physical, you name it — that build to greater and greater heights, and the end is less a conclusion as it is a launching point. It’s extremely satisfying, so I wouldn’t call it a cliff hanger, but there’s no resting on one’s laurels in this universe. I really hope there’s a sequel and I also have no idea how the author will manage to write a sequel to this.

This is Xiran Jay Zhao’s first book, but I was first introduced to their twitter account and the very good, very funny analysis of various movies set in China and what they get horribly wrong, or occasionally right, examples: Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998).

I highly recommend this book, but also just wow: this character is amazing and she pulls absolutely no punches. And also her whole relationship situation is fabulous, summed up by her statement, “Love doesn’t solve problems; solving problems solves problems.” And she is out here to solve some @#$@%ing problems!

* Without having read The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m still going to assume it (much like Jane Eyre) would be vastly improved by the main character being more murderous. And Wu Zetian is here for that murderous response to subjugation.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

This is a tricky review to write because this book was fascinating and well-written, but I didn’t care for it and I don’t think it quite managed to pull off what it had intended to.

I have a great deal of respect for Natasha Pulley as an author, and really enjoyed her previous three books. She always has really interesting concepts and does amazing things with timey-wimey stuff, and this book is no exception. The Kingdoms is unrelated to the previous series, with its own world and characters, mostly around an alternate history of the Napoleonic War (1805 – 1807), but also in “Londres” some 93 years later (1898 – 1900).

Not to include too many spoilers, but as you might guess, this delves into time manipulation and changing timelines and people changing because of changing timelines even more than any of the previous books had. Unfortunately, I think this is the first time she didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The chapters skip around in time a lot, and I often had to just go with the flow rather than completely understand how the parts interconnected, and there are some parts that I don’t think make sense based on the internal world-building. I considered reading the book a second time to more fully track the course of events, but that brought me to my second problem: I found all of the characters vaguely unpleasant in a wide variety of ways. For good and valid reasons: they’re all horribly traumatized in a variety of ways too, but that just makes reading about them even less pleasant. A mixed blessing was how low-key they all were about the horrifying circumstances and the even more horrifying adaptive behaviors.

The only part that I really enjoyed was the last 50 pages or so in which everything came together and a variety of explanations clicked into place and there’s a couple of impressive feats. There’s even a mostly happy ending (as long as you don’t think about it too much.)

So, to sum up: I didn’t enjoy it but I hope that there are other readers who did. And I’m impressed with the writing that tried to do something really difficult. I’ll still keep an eye out for anything else that Pulley writes.

Murderbot by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells were originally an (amazingly wonderful) four-part series of novellas that I already posted about here and here. But since then, there have been developments!

A stand-alone novel: Network Effect (2020)
A fifth novella: Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

I have been a bit off from reading books recently, just feeling sluggish and unable to focus, and then I was reminded that the newest book in this series was being published on April 27, 2021. So I started reading the previous book, Network Effect, that I had bought and loaded on my kindle when it first came out in May 2020 but never read (because sluggish and unable to focus), and it was a great! Are you living in a dystopia and just want to watch fiction all day? Well, Murderbot does too but they still have friends (some of whom are assholes, which is probably for the best because Murderbot is also an asshole) and then plot and events happen and it all works out, more or less, and there’s uncomfortable character growth and development that is hilarious and awkward and so exciting! It left me extremely excited about the new release.

Then I had to re-read the others in order to prepare for the latest.

I was a bit disappointed at first that Fugitive Telemetry was set before Network Effect rather than after, but then I discovered that it was a straight up murder mystery and there’s no room for disappointment. (Also, I can hope that when there is a sequel to Network Effect, it will be another novel instead of a novella!) I bought this story as soon as it was available and finished it within a day and it was fabulous! Murder mystery on a space station! Murderbot is suspicious about assassination attempts on their people! Station security is suspicious of Murderbot! They must work together to find out what happened!

As I was thinking about writing this post, I discovered two short stories that I had completely missed the existence of:

Compulsory” (2019), a single scene set before all of the previous stories, while Murderbot was still doing their regular assigned job and only on episode 44 of their favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, watching it for the first time!
home: habitat, range, niche, territory” (2020), set before Fugitive Telemetry and, for the first time, following a different perspective, showing a slice of life of Dr. Ayda Mensah

So just, in general, I love this series so much!

It was also fun to discover, the day after Fugitive Telemetry came out, that I had curated my tumblr account well enough that I was seeing other fan responses to the release, and it made me so happy. Examples here and here and here.

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

CatfishingcoverCatfishing on CatNet
by Naomi Kitzer
2019

Naomi Kritzer wrote the Hugo-Award-winning short story, “Cat Pictures Please” in 2015 about an AI that woke up on the internet and wants to do good but struggles a bit with how people work. And decides that their currency of choice is cat pictures. Send cat pictures, get help fixing your life. The help is a bit hit-or-miss but the internal ethical debate about what help should be provided is a combination of interesting, adorable, and hilarious.

This book developed from short story and the AI has set of a social media site CatNet where people can go trade in cat pictures. Our main character, however, is Stephanie, a teenage girl who’s mother is moving her again because they are always moving because the mom is spooked that Steph’s father might have found them again. Steph is mostly resigned to the whole situation, with no particular memory of her father but going along with the constant moves and always being “the new girl” and having all of her friends in a chat room on CatNet.

But then things begin to happen: Steph makes an actual friend at her terrible new school and she begins to test some of her mother’s rules, the AI is enjoying having friends on CatNet too and is beginning to think of “coming out” to some of them, and the world at large is struggling with the ethical considerations of robot teachers and self-driving cars, both of which have the potential to be hacked.

There’s also a diverse cast of characters that isn’t the point of the book but also shows how diversity of a variety of types is really the foundation of putting together a group of semi-outcasts: the main friend group is all people who have made their main friendships online for a variety of reasons. And as I was writing that I realized I had to skim four years back through my reviews here because this book is reminiscent of WWW: Wake, but just so much better.

The one problem is my growing pet peeve with a lot of books and how it sets up the next book in the series immediately, the new mystery starting even before the main conflict concludes. I’m still going to read the next book as soon as it’s available in 2021, but I’m annoyed at the set-up.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, and if you have time to be browsing this review, then check out the short story immediately!

Sentinels of the Galaxy by Maria V. Snyder

NavigatingTheStarsNavigating the Stars (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 1)
by Maria V. Snyder
2018

chasing the shadowsChasing the Shadows (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 2)
by Maria V. Snyder
2019

Every so often I see that this author has written the start of a new series and I go to check it out. It’s always worth checking out and I really enjoyed this one, which is more science fiction than her normal fantasy, and also slightly younger with our main character still a minor under her parents’ guardianship. She also has all the internal emotional drama of a teenager while being remarkably mature about dealing with that emotional drama. I like her.

I also really liked the world building which has archeology and distant planets and potential aliens and reminds me of The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. I was also reminded of Artemis but in the way of: this is how an extremely smart and talented but still inexperienced girl is written without being irritating.

One of the really interesting parts of the book, that’s both the premise and woven through the narrative is how the time distortion of space travel effects relationships and experiences.

The one downside of this book is that it does the thing that’s increasingly a pet peeve of mine: has only a minor conclusion at the end of the book, to create some sense of closure, while actually just being the first part of a larger plot arch. It’s annoying. However, in this instance, it worked and I pretty much immediately bought the sequel.

And then about halfway through Chasing the Shadows, the pandemic hit and my ability to concentrate on reading also took a hit. So I took a break and read a massive amount of self-indulgent fanfic instead before coming back to this and finishing it for completeness.

It was more of a slog than the first book, but that could very well have been just my state of mind. However, I’d noticed in previous series that Snyder’s first books are a lot better than her follow-up books as she delves ever more into complex world building beyond what the characters can support and raises the stakes of the conflict beyond what I can follow. However, it did end with an interesting twist that probably means that I’ll go back for book #3 in the series whenever it comes out.

Defying Doomsday

defyingdoomsdayDefying Doomsday
edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench
2016

It was probably not my best idea to read this anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories while dealing with a local black-out caused by heavy storms. It’s the type of situation that’s all the worse for the stories being really well-written and interesting. Beyond just dealing with the apocalypse (“just”, I say), the theme that brings these stories together is disabilities.  The heroes and heroines of each story have some disability — physical, sensory, and/or mental.

The introduction made a really good point about how so many post-apocalyptic stories act like people with disabilities will be the first to die and are a burden to those around them. The stories in this anthology refute that. A few of the authors look at how something that our modern world calls a disability could well be an adaptive feature in a massively changed one. Most of them, however, look at how people who are used to living in a world that doesn’t cater to their needs have experience and practice that more abled people don’t get in our modern world. Reading my kindle by candle light was already highlighting to me how unprepared I was for any sort of harsh living: I live a very catered-to life.

I’m not going to write individual reviews about each story, although I certainly thought about it since the stories are all very good, but also all significantly different from one another. Instead, here are my top three:

“Something in the Rain” by Seanan McGuire is probably my favorite. I find the apocalypse situation particularly terrifying and I like the heroine the best with her ruthless perseverance. And spoiler: the cat lives.

“Given Sufficient Desperation”, by Bogi Takács, felt like a wonderfully subtle modern take on Gordon R. Dickson’s classic, “Danger-Human”.

“No Shit”, by K. L. Evangelista, is an subversion of a couple of classic post-apocolyptic tropes that also directly addresses the issue of how just the idea of roving bands of robbers would impact the people who survive.

The whole anthology a love song to the old adage: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What doesn’t kill you can make you more broken, but it also gives you the experience of carrying on anyway. I definitely recommend it.

Artemis by Andy Weir

220px-Artemis-Andy_Weir_(2017)Artemis
by Andy Weir
2017

This book was fine. I enjoyed it. Mostly. But it had a series of flaws, some more serious than others.

For the good parts: it’s got a diverse cast of characters, and it does what most good science fiction novels do and takes some theories of how science could develop and looks into how those developments impact society. The ideas for how a moon colony would operate are fascinating, both from the science side and from the social side.

It’s also a bit of a heist story which is always fun. Where Weir’s first book, The Martian, was man-vs-nature, Artemis is man-vs-man, which opens up some additional opportunities for interesting conflicts.

But the man-vs-man story line generally needs you to like your characters and pick your side, and I was a bit thrown off by it ultimately being a conflict between a ‘good’ billionaire and a ‘bad’ billionaire. I guess the difference is that one kicks puppies and the other doesn’t? (Metaphorically, at least: there were no pets of any kind in this book.) And there’s ongoing commentary about how unions are like protection rackets that hurt the best skilled workers.

The main character, Jazz (short for Jasmine), is a fine point of view character except for the parts where she literally complains about how everyone is always telling her how much potential she has and offering her opportunities to develop her potential. (We should all have such trials and tribulations.) But she doesn’t take any of them up on the offers, and then feels betrayed the one time she can’t get a pass she wants because potential is fine but you actually need achievement to be successful. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the second scene in the book, which is admittedly before she starts complaining about people offering her opportunities, so isn’t quite so jarring until you think back about it.)

In the end, she’s so smart that she can do pretty much everything with just a little extra studying, and everyone is very impressed with it. There’s a level of wish-fulfillment meets entitlement that I find off-putting (also ignoring the difference between intelligence and education.) Weir is flipping a trope by writing it as a female character, at least, since mostly I see that as guys writing guys, but there’s only so much credit for that. Especially when paired with the narration about how she’s slept with so many men, but then the details seem to be that it’s only two men, both while in monogamous relationships (on her part at least.)

It all comes together like warning signs that Andy Weir might be going the way of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card: talented science fiction writers who went increasingly extreme in being uber-conservative, with a side-order of sexual hang-ups. I grew up reading and enjoying their books, but I’m too old and entitled now myself to deal with that anymore.

Anyway, to sum up: The Martian was amazingly great and any next book of Weir’s would necessarily have a high standard to meet. Artemis didn’t meet that standard, but it’s no worse than many other science fiction novels I’ve read. I’ll keep an eye out for any other books he writes because The Martian was a masterpiece, Artemis was interesting, and two data points is a poor way to predict the future, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

3rogueprotocolThe Murderbot Diaries: Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries: Exit Strategy
By Martha Wells
2018

4ExitStrategyThis is a series of four novellas, the first two of which I’ve already reviewed, but I wanted to make at least a little post about the final two, which have now come out and complete the character arc. They are so good! They each stand alone, but they also all work together to be greater than any one part.

They’re also somewhat reassuring in the way that they are set in a dystopian universe but is still pretty blasé about the whole thing. The characters are trying their best, mostly, and while things do go well, mostly, it’s not world changing, except for the main individual who’s trying to figure out its own place in the world.

Life continues on, self-discover continues on, even when you’re wandering around in a world of corporate control and violent greed. And sometimes you can still have a realistically happy ending.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™
by Rebecca Roanhorse
2017

This story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2017, but I actually only discovered it yesterday when I was checking out the author of a book I am thinking about reading. That book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, a fantasy novel with a Navajo protagonist on a reservation. It looked interesting but I was suspicious about the author (ie, they’d better not be white.)

That whole thought process turned out to be an excellent introduction to her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” which is available for free online although you can also pay for a kindle version if you want to support her. It’s a sci-fi short story but in a casual way: there’s future technology, but the point is the characters and how they interact. Our main character Jesse Turnblatt is an Indian on a reservation with a job at a tourist destination offering tourist an “authentic indian experience”.

The story is pretty much about how different an authentic experience is from an Authentic Experience™. And there’s a difference between being complicit and being malicious but neither are good. And the end of the story hits like a punch.

So really everyone needs to read this story because I need other people to talk to about it, or at least to stare at each other wide-eyed while we think of what to even say.

It’s really good.