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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

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Book Review: Daisy’s Run by Scott Baron

Title: Daisy’s Run

Author: Scott Baron

Series: Clockwork Chimera #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Rule #1: Don’t blow up and die. Rule #2: Always follow Rule #1 if at all possible. Life in deep space could be a drag sometimes, but Daisy supposed things could have been worse. She was still alive, after all, which was always a plus in her book. Now if only she could figure out who, or what, was endangering her return home, things would be just peachy. It had been one hell of a way to start the day––being rudely snapped from a deep cryo-sleep, and in the middle of a ship-wide crisis to boot––but Daisy was pleased to note that the ship had not decompressed, the crew hadn’t been blasted into space, and, most importantly, they hadn’t simply blown up. At least not yet. But being stuck on a damaged ship in the inky depths of space as it limped toward Earth was not exactly the relaxing trip home she’d imagined. With the powerful AI supercomputer guiding the craft beginning to show some disconcerting quirks of its own, and its unsettling cyborg assistant nosing into her affairs, Daisy’s unease was rapidly growing, as was her bigotry toward artificially intelligent beings. Add to the mix a crew of mechanically-enhanced humans, any one of whom she suspected might not be what they seemed, and Daisy found herself with a growing sense of dread tickling the periphery of her mind. Something was very much not right––she could feel it in her bones. The tricky part now was going to be figuring out what the threat was, before it could manifest from a mere sinking feeling in her gut into a potentially deadly reality.  –Goodreads

The Review:

This was almost a DNF.

I put the book down around the 45% mark, and it was only a random set of circumstances that had me picking it back up again about a week later. And what good fortune that I did, because only a few minutes into the revisit, the plot suddenly turned on its head and went from a basic scifi space story to an interestingly original take.

The book had a lot of good setup, but IMO it took way too long to get to the section where the author starting inputting his original ideas. I mean, I lost patience with it long before it hit that point but kept pushing through before finally giving up on it. Sure, the prose had a good flow and the dialogue was witty and fast-paced, but it wasn’t showing me anything I hadn’t seen a million times before… until the midway point. Then it offered a bunch of interesting twists, nice world building, and a good variety of settings. Ultimately, I’m glad the reading gods intervened and kept me reading.

Aside from it being what I thought was a highly predictable read initially, one of the reasons I felt okay putting it down was that I didn’t like the main character as much as I could have. Her dialogue was incredibly unrelatable, sounding more like a male character than female, especially in regards to the sex scenes. It seemed like it was more a conjuring of how some men wish women sounded rather than an organic depiction of a woman with more masculine speech, if that makes sense. Women don’t usually high five each other and use phrases like “I just got laid.” It conflicted with my paradigm. And it made the character seem forced.

There’s a specific tool many storytellers use in books and films to perpetuate plot that I just cannot stand: a misunderstanding between two characters that could be cleared up with a two minute conversation, but is dragged out because the main character is just too distraught ::high drama!!:: to hear anything else on the matter. It drives me crazy. It’s easier to pull off in books because you can only have one character speaking at a time, but it’s not realistic. How hard is it to talk over someone? This book used that tool not only once, but a couple of times to perpetuate the conflict. I realize this is a very personal peeve, so if that trope doesn’t bother you at all (and you can make it to the halfway point), the rest of the components are all there for a good story.

Series status: I probably won’t be continuing the series at this time, although I can see why it has gained some favor with other readers on Goodreads.

Recommendations: this scifi took a long while to get to the selling point of the novel. The great unique spin on things was perhaps a big enough payoff to warrant the wait, so if you pick it up, give it at least until the halfway mark before making the call.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Title: Mirage

Author: Julie E. Czerneda

Series: Web Shifter’s Library #2

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Relationships get complicated when you don’t know who—or what—you really are. Esen must find a way to rescue a hapless group of chimeras, beings who are a new and unique blend of species she knows, when she can’t become one herself. When Evan Gooseberry tries to help, he is shattered to learn he himself isn’t entirely Human and begins to suspect his new friend Esen isn’t what she seems. Complicating matters, a mysterious contagion has killed the crew of the ship that brought the chimeras—and Evan—to Botharis. Everyone’s been quarantined inside the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture, including over a hundred disgruntled alien scholars. The risks climb as Skalet and Lionel continue their quest to solve the disappearance of Paul’s mother’s ship, the Sidereal Pathfinder, only to find themselves caught in a tangle of loyalties as Skalet is betrayed by her own Kraal affiliates, who infiltrate the Library. All of which would be quite enough for one Web-being’s day, but Paul Ragem hopes to rekindle the romance of his first love. A shame Esen hasn’t told him who’s hiding in their greenhouse. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m a mega Czerneda fan, and Beholder’s Eye (the first Esen novel) has long been a go-to scifi recommend. It was my first Czerneda… heck, it was one of my first sci-fi’s, and I’m sure that plays a role in how thoroughly I’m enjoying this revisit, even 15 years later. Since that first read, I’ve read all of the sci-fi trilogy sets she has on the market, and one thing has become abundantly clear: Czerneda is having more fun than ever.

Her writing always had a good bit of situational humor (my favorite kind), but this latest trilogy really amps up that component, making the books an absolute riot. The tone actually fits in nicely with the latest generation of sci-fi that boasts a lighter, feel-good atmosphere (hi Becky Chambers), so she’s on trend, and recommending her just got even easier.

Good humor aside, she includes some of my favorite creature creations (aliens) across the genre, which is still true now that I’ve read a LOT more sci-fi authors. With a background in biology, Czerneda’s aliens are always well thought out and expertly executed. The fun element comes into play here as well – the ways the aliens interact with the main characters is always great for some laughs.

She also has good characters. I like that Esen isn’t written from a human-minded POV. She’s a Web-Being with thought patterns and tendencies different than our own. Thank goodness we have Paul (human) to keep Esen grounded. ;P Czerneda also has excellent perspective immersion… which can sometimes be so well done that it sacrifices clarity for creativity. All of her books include these signature interlude chapters that take away all context and throw you into the depths of an alien perspective. They’re quite ambiguous and I often find myself retreading them to figure out what’s going on (not that reading them over helps much). Even when seriously studying them for the chance to become a beta reader for another Czerneda project, I struggled with these passages (which is probably why I just missed out on the opportunity). These passages also exhibit a clipped, to the point writing style that makes an appearance to a lesser degree in the rest of her works. Her writing is very stylized, and she often seems more interested in the cadence and mood of the delivery than she is in proper sentence structures (a liberty I don’t mind in the least as it makes the books feel more conversational). In recent books, that unique style has gotten more refined, to the point where the pacing of the scenes rockets (not to be confused with the pacing of plot-advancement, which is ironically a bit slow). It makes for an engaging read, just don’t blink or you’ll miss something.

Overall, this was a good bit of blue blob fun, and I can’t wait to see what Czerneda has in store next.

Recommendations: don’t start here! Go back and begin with Beholder’s Eye or even a different great series starting with Survival. Both hold sacred space on my bookshelves.

I’d like to thank DAW Publishing, Julie E. Czerneda, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Mirage!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Title: The Cruel Stars

Author: John Birmingham

Series: The Cruel Stars #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong. The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying. These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed. -Goodreads

The Review:

Although wildly entertaining, The Cruel Stars didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

It started out with a bunch of POV introductions, one at a time, that took up a good 20% of the page count. The language was a bit thick at first, and there were a few info-dump scenes where the entire conversation served no purpose but to tell the reader stuff about the character. Needless to say, it took a moment to get going.

But get going it did, and I found myself interested in most of the characters. The concept is that these slightly remarkable individuals will have to come together to save the galaxy from an elitist threat. So the culminations of events that eventually converged them together kept my interest really well. There was also a good balance between slow character development moments and action scenes (after the first 20%). When the inciting moment finally hit, I was hooked.

Up until the last few chapters, I had the book at a 4-star rating. But the way the events unfolded left me wanting. For starters, the “remarkableness” of the individuals involved didn’t play a huge role in the final conflict. What’s more, all of the interesting dynamics that had been building the whole book were reduced down to a surprisingly simple outcome. It was too simple for my tastes, taking the expansive feel of the story and reducing it down to a minuscule gunfight within a few mile radius. At least, that’s how it felt.

I loved the concept of the enemy – a group of human “purists” who are out to destroy any who have been genetically or cybernetically altered. But Birmingham didn’t really explore that much in this first book. There was a single sentence in passing that speculated on whether or not the alterations were destroying what makes people “human” at their core (implying it could eventually cause them to destroy themselves) that my mind ran with. It gave the hated enemy a really interesting ground to stand on because, theoretically, they could have an outside perspective of corruption that those ingrained in the system can’t see (or they could just be evil fanaticists… it’s hard to tell). But it got me asking questions: What does the “enemy” know that the POVs don’t?! Is there more depth here? But the problem is that none of this was explored in the text, it’s just my own conjecture.

I love profanity in books. Seriously. A well-placed f-bomb can completely elevate a scene, and I especially love when it’s used for comedic effect. But for it to work, it has to be incorporated with a certain amount of consciousness. Swearing is it’s own art form, and and based on its use in Cruel Stars, Birmingham was essentially fingerprinting with mud. The placement was random and in such great volume that it only served to make the characters sound crass and uncreative. Even its placement within each sentence made the language clunky and awkward.

So for some pacing issues, an over-simplified climax, an under-realized concept, and the chaotic use of profanity, I came away from the book disappointed in enough key elements that I probably won’t be continuing the series, but also still kind of glad I’d read it.

Recommendations: the book advertises that it’s similar to both the Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, but I thought it channeled Serenity more than anything else (if we must compare. Although it did have some similarities to the BG tangent Pegasus, but the comparison is thin). I probably wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve already read a bunch of other titles in the genre and just want some mindless action with a little humor mixed in. I was a lot more critical in this review than I usually am, but at least the book provoked something from me. And despite my objections, it was still enjoyable to read. Do with that what you will haha.

Other books you might like (…better):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Network Effect by Martha Wells [May 5, 2020]

Title: Network Effect

Author: Martha Wells

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: May 5, 2020

The Overview: You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot. Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are. When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. Drastic action it is, then. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are few things in life that make me happier than spending time with Murderbot.

… which is ironic, considering it it would rather do literally anything than be social. The Novellas alone were enough to solidify the series as an all-time favorite, so discovering this full-length novel was in the works immediate jumped it to the top of my priority list for 2020. Network Effect was every bit as sardonic, action-packed, and endearing as the novellas, but took it one step further by adding even more depth to the characters.

The unique writing style is the best thing about these books (aside from character construction). It doesn’t follow typical storytelling constructs and often comes across as more conversational than anything else. There’s a great deal of punctuation used to convey Murderbot’s sardonic tone, and no shortage of profanity for comedic impact. I’ve never read anything that comes this close to how I communicate in my daily life, so even the bones of how the story was presented sang to my soul. There were a few occasions where the sarcastic voice was a bit heavy-handed, but this is one of the few cases I would rather a little too much than not enough.

And then we have Murderbot. The best character in sci-fi, hands down.

I think it’s my spirit animal. It’s awkward and introverted and just wants to be left alone to watch its tv serials and I can relate to every single solitary time it couldn’t bring itself to “people” anymore. But the brilliance in this novel is that, social obligational constructs aside, it still craves connection. And that’s where the story becomes much more than a action-packed sci-fi. It’s about a rogue SecUnit trying to carve out a place for itself in the universe. Did Murderbot make me cry? Maybe. I don’t know. Fuck off.

Recommendations: The Murderbot Diaries is in close running with The Expanse and Planetside as my favorite sci-fi on the market. It’s exciting, it’s funny as shit, and it has that magic X-factor that gets people emotionally invested. Start with All Systems Red, and I bet you’ll know within the first few pages if it’s something you’ll enjoy. I was hooked from the first sentence, and it has only gotten better from there. Consider this an official Obsessive Bookseller endorsement – this series is fantastic!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes