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Book Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Title: Semiosis

Author: Sue Burke

Series: Semiosis Duology #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: In this character driven novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke, human survival hinges on an bizarre alliance. Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet’s sentient species and prove that mammals are more than tools. Forced to land on a planet they aren’t prepared for, human colonists rely on their limited resources to survive. The planet provides a lush but inexplicable landscape–trees offer edible, addictive fruit one day and poison the next, while the ruins of an alien race are found entwined in the roots of a strange plant. Conflicts between generations arise as they struggle to understand one another and grapple with an unknowable alien intellect. -Goodreads

The Review:

I didn’t enjoy anything about this book.

Not the characters, not the story, not the trajectory, and most particularly not the execution. Nothing worked for me.

First of all, the basic title and premise give away a lot about what to expect in the story itself. The reader ventures in with a pretty good idea of what’s going on already, so right there the sense of discovery I crave in books was mitigated. What’s more, the reader may know, but the characters don’t, which was a classic case of dramatic irony – where the audience is aware of what’s going on, so they feel a couple of steps removed from the drama… and then the characters take forever to figure things out. Because of this I felt disconnected from the very beginning.

Then the disconnection compounded with each new POV. It’s one of those multi-generational novels where just about the time you get acclimated with a new character, there’s a time jump. I enjoyed the stories but didn’t feel particularly invested in any of them. I suppose from an anthropological standpoint it was interesting to see how society both devolved and adjusted over the course of time, but at the end of the day it was all a bit too simple to really keep my interest.

But I kept reading for the draw of the alien flora and fauna of the world.

Yet even that didn’t play out in a way I found satisfying at the end of the day. The best bits were in the first chapter or two where you really got to immerse in the wildness of this new place. But that interesting world building quickly got replaced by societal drama and an alien entity whom I thought more akin to an AI on a spaceship than an actual foreign creation…

The whole thing was disappointing. Nowhere near where I wanted it to be.

I decided I didn’t care enough about experiencing more in this series to continue with the second book, so I looked up spoilers to see how it ended. I’m such a completionist that those who know me will appreciate how extreme that was and take it as a testament on how much I didn’t care for the first book. It’s like all the ingredients were there with moments of good flavoring, but at the end of the day the author was making cake and I wanted pie (that’s a bad metaphor because I will always eagerly accept both cake and pie, but you get my drift).

Recommendations: this was not one of my favorites, but if you like the idea of a more biological & anthropological scifi (usually my favorite type), this may fit the bill. I was surprised to see how many of my fellow reviewers on GR absolutely loved this book, so I’m definitely in the minority here. Also look up trigger warnings before diving in.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: Mutineer by Mike Shepherd

Title: Mutineer

Author: Mike Shepherd

Series: Kris Longknife

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 1/5 stars

The Overview: Kris Longknife is a daughter of privilege, born to money and power. Her father is the Prime Minister of her home planet. Her mother the consummate politician’s wife. She’s been raised only to be beautiful and marry well. But the heritage of the military Longknifes courses through Kris’s blood-and, against her parents’ objections, she enlists in the marines. -Goodreads

The Review:

When trying to make a decision on whether or not to read something, it can often be much more helpful to look at the low star ratings than the high ones. To that end I’m going to be including more DNF reviews in my lineup. I have a Q&A format here that I adapted from Nikki at There Were Books Involved (with permission, which is important even if her blog doesn’t exist anymore), and I think it’s a great way to discuss the book constructively. Here goes:

Did you really give Mutineer a chance?

Not as much as I usually give before throwing in the towel – 25%. But it was clear from very early on the book was not going to resonate with me.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Space Opera SciFi? Heck yeah! Even the cheesier ones. I was hoping this series would be a fun palate cleanser between other reads, but alas. Here are a few I enjoyed a lot more:

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

Hopeful optimism that the books would be at least 3-star quality. Beyond that I felt like I was ready to put up with a lot of weaker components if the overall story was entertaining.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

Ugh. About the point where the main character was in someone’s kitchen planetside describing the finer points of white flour and Ghirardelli chocolates, I lost patience. We were so completely removed from what I signed up for that I’d had enough. I read a few chapters more, but knew it was going to be a DNF. There were just too many things leading up to that point that had me dissatisfied.

Character development was one of the biggest misses.

The main character was not realistic to me in the slightest. Having suffered trauma at an early age, the character experienced several unbelievable reactions early on in the book. Where the mere mention of the event sent her into fits of fainting, unable to control her body. It was eye-rolling and very immature.

I’m by no means downplaying the different effects trauma can have on someone. To add context, this woman grew up very wealthy (using the “poor little rich girl” angle that drove me crazy) and her family was aware of the trauma. As infeasible as I find it that someone with that much distance from the event and resources available to heal from it would still be experiencing reactions to that degree years later, it’s the fact that she’s a ranking military officer that finalized how much I disliked that plot point. I’ve never been in the military, but I’m pretty sure they don’t let you in without background checks and psychological evaluations to ensure you’re not going to have episodes in the middle of dangerous situations where you could get others killed. At the very least she would’ve gotten help from the base shrink.

This is a very specific rant, yet the unrealistic aspects of the story kept trickling in left and right to the point where the author lost my trust in his ability to deliver a story that would work for me.

The final tip off was when the main character’s parents were introduced, and as it turns out she was not only a spoiled rich girl, but a petulant one at that. Peace out.

Is there anything you liked about Mutineer?

The fact that it was a Scifi. Although considering how little of the first part had to do with actual space, I’m more or less assuming here.

Would you read anything else by the author?

No. I need things to make more sense than they did here, and I need more realistic development of characters. The author and I are so far apart on preferences that I don’t think it possible to ever meet in the middle.

So you DNFed the book. Would you still recommend it?

Well, since most my complaints were very specific dislikes about the plot itself (and how unrealistic I found them), perhaps someone with more patience and a willingness to go with the flow might actually like it when they get to the space parts. At this point I probably wouldn’t mention it even in passing to someone though. Most books that I don’t like are from an evaluation standpoint, whereas this one actively annoyed the snot out of me lol.

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Title: Last Emperox

Author: John Scalzi

Series: Interdependency #3

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction . . . and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known. Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people form impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough. Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization . . . or the last emperox to wear the crown? -Goodreads

The Review:

Considering the book didn’t actually start until 75% in, I think a 2 star rating quite generous.

Coming off the amazing, fast-paced whirlwind that was Consuming Fire, I launched into Last Emperox braced for a killer finale! Then slowly, chapter by slogging chapter, I realized the best bits of the series were probably behind me.

The first third of the novel was an extensive recap of what had happened in the series to that point. Albeit dressed up as character introspection where we worked to solidify their personal convictions. But during this time no actual plot advancement made an appearance.

The middle third of the book took all of that recap and turned it into character reflection. Where we sat around and analyzed what had happened in the first two books and agreed that yes, we need to stick to our plans. One good solid point of plot-advancing happened here, and it was enough to keep me reading, but only just.

Then finally, within the last 50 pages of the book, things came together and we discovered what we’d been working towards this entire series. It was a good ending. Perhaps even a satisfying one in some ways. But the drainage of any iota of momentum by way of totally excessive empty word count had me putting down the story wishing I’d felt as I’d had after finishing book 2.

Based on the number of plot-advancing points in this final book, I think the series would’ve been much stronger written as a duology. It only would’ve needed to add a few of the good chapters from book 3 to the end of book 2, and for me it would’ve been much more successful. At the moment I’m sitting on a $25 hardcover of the third book feeling a little like I’ve been swindled (good thing I got it on a good sale).

I suppose if you just loved the characters a lot more than I did, you may have relished in the downtime spent in retrospect with them. At this point in the series, I was looking for momentum, action, and excitement. So you can see why I disconnected. In any case, it clearly wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

It’s a good thing this was a quick read.

Recommendation: this final book had a lot of filler content that almost killed the series for me. However, because the second book was so good, and the effort it took to get through to the grand finale of the series was relatively minimal (I read it in two days), I’d still recommend the trilogy as a whole for a fun, light Scifi read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Title: Collapsing Empire

Author: John Scalzi

Series: Interdependency #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man’s War. Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars. Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire. The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse. -Goodreads

The Review:

I went into this first book on some really consistent high praise – many people hail this as their favorite Scalzi series to date. And while I enjoyed the book overall, I gotta say it didn’t knock my socks off. I much preferred Scalzi’s Old Man’s War as a series starter, truth be told. And I think most of that had to do with character development.

I liked the characters here, but they felt a little over-exaggerated. Especially Kira. An incredibly profane, debaucherous profile with absolutely no subtlety to her persona. It wasn’t so much that she dropped F-bombs in every sentence. It was more HOW she dropped the F-bombs. I love swearing in books. Not only does it make me laugh, but I feel it’s a fun way to add emphasis to the dialogue and characters. Two authors who integrate it brilliantly are Martha Wells (Murderbot) and Joe Abercrombie (First Law). I’ve said a variation of this before, but if swearing were an art form, our character Kira is finger painting with mud. There was no logic to the placement and was more or less just distracting. I suspect that I’m a bit of a profanity snob (who knew?) but it just didn’t work for me on any level. The only thing she had going for her were her no BS attitude and the quick-witted nature of her responses.

The other characters were much better, but I struggled on feeling any sort of connection to them other than mild interest. The villains were a hard sell for me as well. For people with that much money and resources, they were awfully short-sighted. They also lacked a thoroughness that was just too unrealistic for me to buy into.

I don’t mean to be all down about the book. I did like the overall mood and flow of the writing. Scalzi is such a feel-good Scifi author that even though I wasn’t in love with the characters, I was still enjoying the process of reading the book. I also liked the overall idea for the story. It’s easily his most ambitious plot structure I’ve read to date, and I appreciated how much thought must have gone into the flow-stream theory. It’s the kind of made-up sciency jargon I love in Scifi for its world building components.

Overall, even though it didn’t blow me away, I like the writing and the story enough to want to keep reading and (lucky me) the second book gave me everything I’d been hoping to get out of this series.

Recommendations: if you like lighthearted, easy reading Scifi, you can’t go wrong with Scalzi. His books are always fun reads with just enough plot and substance to make for a satisfying experience. As an intro to the series, this was a decent start. Wil Wheaton narrates the audiobook, and while his delivery matches the writing style perfectly, it will kind of feel like he’s yelling at you the whole time. Proceed with caution. Lol

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Falls

Author: James S.A. Corey

Series: The Expanse #9

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: The Laconian Empire has fallen, setting the thirteen hundred solar systems free from the rule of Winston Duarte. But the ancient enemy that killed the gate builders is awake, and the war against our universe has begun again. In the dead system of Adro, Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to understand what the gate builders were and what destroyed them, even if it means compromising herself and the half-alien children who bear the weight of her investigation. Through the wide-flung systems of humanity, Colonel Aliana Tanaka hunts for Duarte’s missing daughter. . . and the shattered emperor himself. And on the Rocinante, James Holden and his crew struggle to build a future for humanity out of the shards and ruins of all that has come before. As nearly unimaginable forces prepare to annihilate all human life, Holden and a group of unlikely allies discover a last, desperate chance to unite all of humanity, with the promise of a vast galactic civilization free from wars, factions, lies, and secrets if they win. But the price of victory may be worse than the cost of defeat. -Goodreads

The Review:

It has been almost three months since I read Leviathan Falls, the final novel in the Expanse series, and I’m finally ready to review it.

It was a good book, but it wasn’t the wow moment I had been hoping for.

I had a lot of expectations for this finale. Many ideas of what I wanted to see happen and a mental list of questions I wanted answered. I was more or less let down on all accounts. There were a few hints at answers, but they were presented in a dense, convoluted manner that in no way satiated my curiosity. While the book contained some decent character arc payoffs, it only just touched on the main series ones. The epilogue saved it from total disaster, but yet I am still left with more questions. If for a minute I let go of expectations, I can admit that there was an unconventional subtlety to the ending that had way more of an impact than if it had been sent off with guns blazing (figuratively speaking… mostly), and I admire the beautiful writing and element of craft in its composition… but yet, here I sit, still feeling a bit unsatisfied.

And I think it all comes down to series pacing and structure.

After the earth-shattering amazingness that was Nemesis Games, the series took a new direction. Focusing more on the “expanding” part of the series, it was definitely the beginning of a second arc. One I still felt connected to through many familiar faces. I didn’t necessarily love the new direction, but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, putting my overall evaluation on hold until reading the last book. You see, if we weren’t working towards something momentous, did we really didn’t needs these endless pages of build-up? Probably not.

Taimant’s Wrath (book 8) was a slam dunk, completely momentous and profound installment that left me feeling all of those culminating emotions suitable for the end of a series. The trouble is, the series didn’t end there – it took all that great momentum and petered out into the last book.

A lot of the conflicts in book 9 felt contrived. Written in not because it had meaning to the series as a whole, but to give the characters more problems to navigate to perpetuate the story. The antagonist was a character we hadn’t seen before, and while I love the deep integration we get into the world of every human in this series and enjoyed her story, I didn’t think she served any purpose other than as a vehicle for plot advancement. Cut her story out entirely, and all the baggage that came with it, and there would’ve been a lot more room to actually explain what the heck has been going on this entire series. In more than just vague impressions.

If I can be so bold to suggest, the last half of the series would’ve been stronger with a different structure. Ideally books 6, 7, and part of 8 would be combined into one book – giving us enough time to acclimate to the new state of the story but still progressing it forward. Then the best bits of the remainder of 8 (all the momentous stuff that knocked me on my behind) combined with a very trimmed book 9. With perhaps a novella in between detailing the protomolecule’s origins. Or, even better, detailing it somewhere in the main text.

I know, easy enough for me to sit here and analyze and criticize. But that’s part of the reason it took me so long to write this review. I’d been trying to figure out exactly WHY the story felt disappointing. I’d been championing it as my favorite scifi ever since the fifth book came out, and I kept holding onto hope that it would continue to hold that spot after the final novel. The way it stands now, books 5&8 are among the strongest I’ve ever read in any genre, but I now feel compelled to add a few disclaimers when suggesting the series to others.

I’m not all bitter-sauce about it though. There are so many great moments and amazing characters (Avasarala will forever remain my chosen spirit-animal) within this series that make it so much fun to read and recommend. I will always have a special place in my soul for it, even if it didn’t ultimately end where I’d hoped.

Recommendations: if you’re looking for an action-packed space opera with some of the best character work in the business, you can’t go wrong with the Expanse. Even though this finale left me somewhat wanting, I don’t regret a single moment reading it, and in fact still cherish a lot of it.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Title: You Sexy Thing

Author: Cat Rambo

Series: None Listed ATM

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Just when they thought they were out… TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that’s just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it. Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance. But, some wars can’t ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren’t content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive. -Goodreads

The Review:

Wait!! Don’t let the title scare you off – this is a new space opera series from TOR.

They’re taglining it as “Farscape meets The Great British Bake-off” and yes, I can see the comparison to Farscape and yes, a restaurant and cooking plays a roll in the story… however, I think they’re overselling the food aspect. I was expecting the setting and the overall story to have more to do with owning and operating a business – the restaurant as the central point which all of the other components/conflicts revolve. However, it was more just a quick novelty, and then we moved on to dealing with minor bad guys from the main character’s past.

Truth be told, in a market flooded with similar stories, the cooking was the only aspect that initially differentiated it from the rabble. Since that wasn’t really the focus, everything else was just okay, run-of-the-mill space opera. I didn’t have any particular connection to the characters. The conflict felt like a side story to all of the setup for the “Hive Mind,” from which they’d originally opened a restaurant to escape. And it used my least favorite writing tool of “just give me a chance to explain!” – “No!!” near the end that sucked what enjoyment I was having out of it.

However, that’s just me being a bit over critical. I’ve read so many space operas lately that I can’t often find joy in a basic, fun story like this one – I also need more depth, a bit of substance, and an overarching plot I can get behind. So, if you’re not grouchy like me, you might appreciate the lighthearted fun this novel offered and enjoy the interesting cast of characters.

Oh! One thing to it’s huge credit is the creation of many non-humanoid main characters. Not only were they fun concoctions, but talked, behaved, and interacted with the other characters in a way totally not human, which I loved. The story also contained an A.I. Spaceship, who’s emotional growth and development was by far the most interesting takeaway from the story. So, the book still has a lot of things going for it, personal expectations aside.

Originally receiving a review copy of this for audio production quality, I thought I’d also mention that the narrator for the audiobook, Vivienne Leheny, did a great job animating all the diverse beings and making them feel even more alien. Her performance definitely added to the experience.

Recommendations: If you’re seeking a lighthearted, quirky space opera read, this is a great pick. It won’t offer a lot of depth and substance, but it will offer the fun-factor.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes