The Portable Door by Tom Holt. Or, Use the Door to Exit, ASAP

Read February 2021
Recommended for fans of snark
 ★     1/2  

After thirty years in emergency response and nursing, and a lifetime of being associated with law enforcement people, I like to think I’m somewhat of an expert on snark. What I’ve learned is that snark has a time and a place, and that too much of it distances us from the issues we care about, and the people we are trying to convince to care. It’s value is in the remark waking others up to possibilities and interpretations: like deconstructionism, it should come with an entrée of a solution. Otherwise, it’s just unrelenting peanut gallery throwing up straw barriers to caring.

Tom Holt/K.J. Parker seems to be at the advanced level of snark. If you love his books, I’m happy for you. But you should move along. I’m not kidding.

“Furthermore, he suspected that if Mr. Wurmtoter knew a tenth as much about people as he presumably did about dragons, he’d have taken a look at the cold glare in her eye and jumped out of the window. Paul let her go first, and took care to stay several paces behind her all the way back to the office.

Paul had believed in the existence of six a.m. for many years, just as he’d always believed in the yeti and the Loch Ness monster; in the same way, he’d always devoutly hoped that he’d never have to confront any of them face to face. But, somehow or other, he made it to the office door on time, to find Sophie already waiting. She was wearing a suit that had probably belonged to her grandmother, who had kept it for funerals.”

The fundamental problem with unrelenting snark is the distancing–verbal social-distancing, if you will. Sure, it’s funny, but as a character quips and sarcastically notes his way through his life (and they are usually ‘hims’), the are forgoing the possibility of real connection, both to the character and the setting. Used wisely, it can create the aura of world-weary disillusionment in the situation and institutions that surround him. Used poorly, it mostly just seems like an immature character who would rather be funny than thoughtful. It pokes fun rather than illuminates.

I tried The Portable Door because it was first in Holt’s urban fantasy-type series, about an everyday man who discovers a talent for magic and gets co-opted into the office managing the surreal. It wasn’t available at my library (always a sign), but I thought it a good idea to start the series at the beginning. And oh, what a beginning. So much exposition. Holt has certainly learned his lesson since, as Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City jumps right into the skirmishes. But reading Door made me feel like I was literally accompanying a young, disillusioned man on his introduction into the magical. Daily. Lots of repetition with very little curiosity, a critical impediment in an urban fantasy which should be introducing the reader to a magical world. “Poor me!” is the refrain through the book, an attitude I have little tolerance for. His rare moments of curiosity and interest are usually about women. It’s honestly boring. It’s male chick-lit, because I get very little about why I should care about him.

“Paul nodded. ‘You bet. I don’t like all this weird stuff. On the other hand, I need the job.’ 

‘Same here. If I went home and told them I’d jacked it in, they’d go mad. You know, scenes and melodrama. Give me the weirdness any day.’

Quietly, Paul blessed the thin girl’s parents for their attitude; because if she threw in her job, that’d be that, he’d probably never see her again. Mysterious swords and things with claws didn’t exactly appeal to him as integral parts of the working environment, but he was damned if he was going to let them come between him and a girl who’d actually smiled at him, twice.”

I read in a couple of fits, and finally got solidly distracted at 88%, per my kindle. Had it been a paper book, I would have done a solid skim to the end, but I find that much harder to do with kindle. Yep, that’s the kind of tension it had, that one could just be annoyed enough to walk away, even almost to the ending.

So: a main character that is both uninteresting and uninterested; a paucity of magical details and a plethora of needless inner monologue ones; and ‘magic’ that is basically about a sword in a stone and weirdness in the office means a solid ‘meh’ read. For those that read in the genre, it’s kind of a junior, less well-written, less action-oriented Laundry Files. Good luck.

Posted in Book reviews, Urban fantasy | 1 Comment

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Read February 2021
Recommended for engineers and military strategists
 ★     ★     

A solid meh on my enjoyment scale.

Historical military fiction with a snarky first person narrator. Engineers will likely love this ode to their profession and ingenuity, and fans of military strategy should enjoy the details as well. The story centers on a former slave, Orhan, who is now the leader of a large group of engineers in the army of his oppressor, the Empire of Robur. When bad things start happening to the Empire, he finds himself working to defend it using all his ingenuity and guile. Lying, tricking, killing–all will be used in the defense of the Empire. There’s a lot of detail about ropes, beams, siege machines ,and strategies against fortified walls, leading to the titular ‘sixteenth way,’ a new way used when there’s absolutely no hope at all. For those into historical military fiction, I’m told the Robur Empire is the Byzantine Empire and the capital is its Constantinople.

The mordant humor is what may redeem the book for many.  I’m no stranger to twisted humor, but this is not in a Murderbot kind of way, where someone talks a tough game but actually goes around saving people. This is “I legit did a bunch of shitty things and I’m going to keep doing them in a somewhat inept” kind of way. A more flawed narrator I have not seen since Glotka in Abercrombie’s series, so take that for what you will.

A further damning note for fantasy readers: there is nothing fantastical about it at all, except Parker makes the oppressing people black blue and the MC ‘milky’ in skin tone, an authorial move that may or may not be problematic, but certainly seems tone deaf. Since this is essentially lazy historical military fiction, I’ll further note that slave status based on color and women treated like chattel are the norm.

The theme is pretty rough and depressing as well. Basically, people suck and even as you try to help, they’ll misunderstand and undermine you. I’ll note that a number of reviewers felt the ending was truncated and disappointing. I’ll agree; it was almost like both Orhan and Parker were tired out. Me too.

I’m definitely done with this series.

Posted in Book reviews, Fiction | Tagged , | 9 Comments

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask

Read January 2021
Recommended for nerds and those who love names
 ★     ★     ★     ★


I love words and have noted plenty of irony in suburban addresses more than once (where are the oaks on Oak Trail?). So when I read a review of Mask’s book about addresses, I jumped at it. Mask takes a broad look at addresses, at the history and current issues relating to describing the places we live. Her introduction is essay-worthy of itself, giving a solid overview of where they come from and why we should care. She relates a story of visiting an address-less town in Appalachia and what it means in both concrete (directions to visitors, ambulances, property rights) and philosophical/political senses (after looking at a house on Black Boy Lane), as well as where the names come from once you create an address.

Mask is an engaging, accessible writer, and the early chapters flew by. After the introduction, the book is divided into five sections: Development, Origins, Politics, Race, and Class and Status. It’s followed by a hefty bibliography, for those who want to check references and be reassured she isn’t merely writing a light-weight interest story. Each section has at least a couple of essays exploring the topic, nominally written around an example city. 

Development looks at Kolkata and the problem of street addresses and slum transformation. “But the lack of addresses was depriving those living in the slums a chance to get out of them. Without an address, it’s nearly impossible to get a bank account. And without a bank account, you can’t save money, borrow money, or receive a state pension.” The second section looks at disease and addresses. In London in 1765 all houses were given numbers. When death certificates were done they had the address of the victim, which allowed Dr. John Snow tracing of a cholera epidemic. Brief discussion follows of the cholera epidemic in Haiti and how lack of addresses challenged pinpointing the source.

Under Origins section, ‘Rome: How did the ancient Romans navigate’ goes more into how addresses came about. Interestingly, despite being one of cultural touchpoints for government organization, the Romans, did not use addresses or street names. I found discussion of a MIT researcher in the 1950s talking about mental maps fascinating. Some cities are ‘highly imageable’ to our senses, which made them more memorable. She also relates a physiological study about how mental maps cause more of the hippocampus to fire, while using GPS/navigation causes less. There is some speculation here in this section, about how ancient Romans might have navigated, using the input from research. 

Also under Origins, ‘London: Where do street names come from,’ contains some of the details of how street names came about, both in common parlance and in development of the postal system. “House numbers were not invented to help you navigate the city or receive your mail, though they perform those two functions admirably. Instead they were designed to make you easier to tax, imprison, and police. House numbers exist not to help you find your way, but rather to help the government find you.” Part of the section also investigates how the recently created addresses helped a doctor track down a cholera outbreak. ‘Vienna: What can house numbers teach us about power’ continues the theme of government motivations, beginning with how giving house numbers in Vienna helped the ruler discover and track men of fighting age for conscription. This goes a little sideways into surnames as well, especially with government regulation with Native Americans and Jews in many countries. There was a French police officer, Guillauté, who created one of the first efforts at police Big Data by devising a mechanical file cabinet and tracking system for all French citizens in the 1750s.

‘Philadelphia’ is a more historical section, tracing the development of numbered streets in Manhattan and Philadelphia. ‘Korea and Japan: Must streets be named’ was intriguing in it’s philosophical bent. Try this concept on: “Instead of naming its streets, Tokyo numbers its blocks. Streets are simply the spaces between the blocks. And buildings in Tokyo are, for the most part, numbered not in geographical order, but according to when they were built.” Mind blown. Buildings connecting over time, instead of just location. Apparently, it comes from when the owners for each block had responsibility for government. She then segues into the theory of mental images and places, and connects Tokyo’s system to it’s most prevalent form of writing, Kanji, which is in ‘logograms–each character represents a word or idea.’ Children learn kanji by writing on grid-paper.

‘Politics’ examines address names in Iran and their connection to revolutionaries. The section on Berlin looks at how street names changed back and forth with politics: from pre-Nazi; to Nazi period, where any Jewish connected address was renamed; post-WWII when East and West Berlin got new street names again as the city tried to erase the past; and again, post-unification. One of the saddest commentaries came from an interviewee who had discovered she and her hairstylist were raised in the same city but had known the schools under different names: “We cannot talk about places that we have no common name for. Talking about cities, schools, and streets in East Germany, you have to translate between old, new, and very old.”

The last section, ‘Class and Status’ contains two essays. The first covers Manhattan and status connected to addresses, and developers’ push to buy a name. For instance, 1 Central Park West (developed by Trump) had asked the city to change it’s designated address from 15 Columbus Circle. It was, but somehow just a few years later, “Time Warner built a tower behind Trump’s, naming it One Central Park–even though its address was really 25 Columbus Circle.” The last is ‘Homelessness: How do you live without an address’ revisits some of the issues raised in the slums of India and what not having an address means. One English innovator suggested a mail forwarding system using the 200,000 houses in London that are empty six months of the year, or the 11k that have been unoccupied for over ten years. These two felt surprisingly light, more like specifically written magazine pieces, given how full earlier chapters were. But the quality is good–think The New Yorker. 

As with the introduction, she uses her conclusion to discuss other aspects of addresses, specifically about new efforts by Google and by smaller companies such as what3words to have a world-wide address systemwhat3words boggles my mind with it’s grid system and naming based on three words.

Overall, even the lighter pieces had me thinking. I found it a fascinating read examining the intersection of place and culture. 


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The Seep by Chana Porter

Read February 2021
 ★     ★     ★     ★    

You probably read my book reviews to figure out whether or not a book should make it to your TBR list, and maybe even how soon you should read it. I’m solidly on the fence about The Seep, which reminds me of  Annihilation, only less eerie, and about ten times more overt. So let me give you a touch of the first chapter (minus the bookend chapter) so you can get the flavor of the writing:

“When the aliens first made contact, Trina and her not-yet-wife, Deeba, threw one of their famous dinner parties for a select group of friends. It wasn’t difficult to keep the guest list small. Everyone was too nervous to travel far, the subways and buses deserted but for the most intrepid or desperate travelers. They invited two beloved couples who happened to live close by, and who wondrously had never met. Emma and Mariam came first, with two types of hard cheeses, three types of olives, gluten-free rice crackers, tubs of spicy hummus. Emma was French and Mariam was from Cario, so they both really knew how to put together a cheese plate. Their little party was completed by Katharine and Laura, the friendly, easygoing lesbians from Tennessee. They came with copious amounts of alcohol (one can always depend on the lapsed Christians to bring the bar): pale ale for the butches, and drinkable red wine. Introductions were made, drinks were poured, cheese and olives exclaimed over…. A generous feeling swirled around them like a melody, like a scent. The essence of a perfect dinner party. How have we never met before? they asked again and again, but what they were really saying was, How have I only just begun to love you?”

That should tell you whether or not you are well-matched to this little book–verging on novella, really–that has less to do with aliens, and more to do with the psychology of self via identity politics. It is less grounded in theory than in artistic extrapolation, but there are lots of intriguing ideas, with profuse grey areas. Given the chutzpah to take on the issues of identity politics, it feels surprisingly non-confrontational; much like the Seep, you will find yourself agreeing with most positions, even as they oppose each other.

It’s a fast read if you read it like a normal book. I think I finished easily in a couple of hours. The prose seems simple and straightforward, facilitating speed, but it also lends itself to a kind of beauty worth savoring. The above dinner party scene is one such example; the emotion of it quite touching. The downside of such prose, of course, is that it distills complex thoughts and actions into relatively bite-sized pieces, which is a disservice to many of the concepts around identity. Porter instead tries to get the reader to feel their way through the issues along with the main character, Trina.

The actual alien and post-alien transition is mostly alluded to, with almost nothing on a grand political scale, so people hoping for a traditional first-contact or post-social upheaval story will be very disappointed. There’s a couple of references to alternate protest communities (which brings to memory the various responses covered in The Last Policeman), but they are peripheral to the issue of Trina clinging to her individuality in its many guises. The Seep is biological, virtually elemental, and it’s effect on the psyche has “the nuance of a Golden Retriever.” While one may avoid reveling in it, it is about as avoidable as air pollution.

Thematically, it is also very much about the grief of growing apart from an intimate partner and what living with that grief looks like. Despite that compounded with Porter’s desire to have us empathize with Trina, it is not hopeless book as much as one of curiosity. I ended up enjoying it, although I do feel like it was a little facile in the approach to what it means to be an individual, particularly as defined by identity politics. Still, I’m speaking from a head-center approach, so I have to admire the fact that it kept me intrigued. This is one where the disclaimer ‘your mileage may vary’ will apply to the nth degree.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Henchmen’s Book Club by Danny King

Read February 2021
 ★     ★      1/2

I haven’t been this ambivalent about a book since, oh, last week. My reading buddies and I wanted to prolong our baddie streak after finishing Hench. It turned out that The Henchmen’s Book Club was what we thought we would get with Hench, only, you know, a little more regressive.

“But most of all, Bill just missed making a difference; even if that difference was invariably a terrifying plot that threatened to destabilise the entire free world. But like Bill said, it was just nice to be a part of something.”

Mark Jones is a henchman in the Agency, one of the big employment agencies for supervillains. But despite steady work, it doesn’t always pay well, and Mark’s in debt to his father-in-law. As much as Mark would like to get out of the business, it’s his only chance for a payday. The trouble is that the villains aren’t all that interested in looking after their contracted employees and Mark keeps finding himself in hot water.

“Because loyalty’s a one-way street in this game, with often nothing more than broken promises, trap doors and piranha tanks waiting when it came time to paying the men who’d done the actual grafting.”

So while Mark’s standing around, he decides to start a book club with his fellow henches. It becomes a connection between some of the henches, although it is not without controversy: “The only serious danger I’d experienced was when I’d come perilously close to losing my nominating rights following some scandalously low scores for The Kenneth Williams Diaries.’

The story is rather episodic, and for awhile, it was hard to parse out an overarching plot. It veers from one disastrous job to another. The humorous descriptions and asides were non-stop, and at times, exhausting. It should be noted that they were occasionally excessively juvenile, particularly a number of mentions of something being very “gay.” An example: “Instead, I tried meditating my way to the surface. This sounds a bit gay, and I’ll be the first to admit it, but it can actually save your life.”  Not only not really necessary, but I felt rather questionable coming from a guy who’s reading books like ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ ‘The Client,’ ‘Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ ‘Bodies,’ ‘The Book of Illusions,’ and ‘Beloved.’ Which–characters. I actually rather enjoyed how most of them were done, focusing on the henching, but adding a few details here and there to humanize them, especially Mr. Smith and Big Cat. The ‘heroes’ ended up being especially funny, with their imaginary takes on James Bond and an American Steven Segal-type action figure.

“‘You’re going to get us both killed, you great fuckwit!’ I cringed, hardly daring to look over at the speedometer.
“Danger’s my middle name,” Tempest breezed.
“I never said danger. I said killed,” I pointed out. “And fuckwit.”

Honestly, I felt like this was a book in need of a strong editor. Take out a good forty pages of filler in the beginning, use the hench book club even more to create empathy, remove the tasteless ‘gay’ language, re-work descriptions of women so they don’t automatically include the fuckability meter, and rework the problematic Africa section (or cut it), and it would be closer to a fun, four-star read. It would make a bankable difference between finishing this and wanting to try more of the author’s works, both written and in screen. For now, I’ll pass on further King.

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The Album of Dr. Moreau

Read February 2021
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Daryl Gregory always gets a second look from me. I thought Afterparty interesting and clever, Harrison Squared interesting and clever, We Are All Completely Fine interesting and disturbing, Pandemonium interesting and challenging… You get the idea. When I think of Gregory’s writing, I think of clever, a story with emotional complexity, and a skewed way of looking at the world.  The Album of Dr. Moreau achieves 2/3s of this, being a normal (for Gregory) mash-up relying on The Island of Dr. Moreau, boy-bands and a murder mystery.

Weighing in a novella length, it feels light on the emotional complexity I’m used to getting from his stories, as well as the knife-edged horror. If there’s horror here, it’s strictly of the boy-band variety, a type many will argue is inherently horrific for different reasons. Interestingly, although I originally hesitated to start reading at bedtime, (knowing how Gregory writes, I didn’t want it in my dreams), this one ended up being so easily digestible, I had no trouble reading before bed.

“But we don’t talk about [redacted], because… well, we’re a fucking boy band. We’re not The Cure.”

The feel of the book skews new or young adult, and with members of a boy-band center stage in plot and narration, it’s no surprise. The structural conceit is a 14-track album, with bonus track and Intro (which really should have been ‘Cover Notes’), which goes quickly. While it opens with a mysterious letter and CD addressed to a ‘Melanie,’ it really begins with the housekeeper discovering a very altered Bobby the party-cat(‘the cute one’) and a dead body in the room. Detective Lucia Delgado is at home trying to sleep through the racket of her daughter’s music when she’s called to the hotel by her partner for the investigation. Once they learn they have only a couple of days before the FBI (or FWS) steps in, the pressure to solve is on.

“‘Fifteen hours?’ Banks asked. ‘That’s not fair. In any decent movie, the hard-ass captain gives the detectives twenty-four hours to solve the case. Eddie Murphy got forty-eight.’
‘Eddie’s the criminal in that movie,’ Luce said.
‘Are you saying you’d rather be Nick Nolte? Nobody wants to be Nick Nolte, except for Gary Busey.'”

The beginning was a bit of a slower crawl for me, alternating between the viewpoints of various band members and the detective. Although we’re progressing the investigation through different people, their background knowledge is concealed, which makes for a complicated task of characterizing them. As such, they do rather take on boy-band personas, only being about as deep as their physical characteristics go.

The writing is still Daryl Gregory, although perhaps a lighter, more pop version:

“He’d evidently just stepped out of the shower, and he smelled amazing–a mix of citrus, cedar, and ex-boyfriend who just worked out.”

“They were both as fit and aggro-cheery as spin class instructors.”

Once I hit Track 8–excuse me, half way–I felt a lot more involved with both pace and writing style. I guess the exposition interviews just didn’t work as well as they could to keep me caring. It didn’t help that I was largely unfamiliar with the original work of H.G. Wells, and that I was waiting for the weirdness. The last quarter of the book is where I felt it really shone. This might be another case of Gregory appealing to a more niche group, only this case, I’m not in it–although I’m clearly in the age group the jokes are aimed at. Still, he writes it, I’ll read it. If it sounds intriguing, I’d say give it a shot.

Posted in Book reviews, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

Read February 2021
 ★     ★     1/2

Originally published in 1986, ‘Tuf Voyaging’ contains seven stories largely published in Analog in 1985. You remember 1985, right? ‘Money for Nothing,’ ‘A View to a Kill,’ AIDS, Gorbachev, New Coke, Nintendo, and ‘The Breakfast Club’ all sound familiar? Yeah, that’s right. The year where it seemed like the leaders just wanted to fight, greed was king and the youth movement was all about walking away from the adults in the room. Clearly Martin was tapping into the zeitgeist, because his protagonist Tuf is all about being misunderstood, calling out governments and nobles, and expressing his desire to be left alone with his cats.

The first story is ‘The Plague Star’ and lays the foundation for the rest. A band of four people tied together by greed lights on Tuf as the solution to their transport problems. “The man is an independent trader, of sorts. Not a very successful one… He must be getting desperate–desperate enough, I’d think, so that he’ll jump at this opportunity… He’ll give us no trouble. He’s big, but soft, inside and out. He keeps cats, I hear. Doesn’t much like people. Drinks a lot of beer, eats too much.” It is novella-length at 120 pages and describes just how a humble space trader ends up in possession of an ancient ‘seed’ ship.

The remainder of the stories are basically Tuf going to different places in the universe and ‘solving problems,’ although there’s a reoccurring visit to the Port of S’uthlam, a sophisticated space repair station. ‘Loaves and Fishes’ refers to how Tuf solves the problem of repairs at the Port. At 75 pages it’s the second-longest story, while the remaining ones are under 50. ‘Guardians’ is fishing world beset by leviathans and whom Tuf offers to help. ‘Second Helpings’ is a return to Port looking for another miracle of the fishes. ‘A Beast for Norn’ and ‘Call Him Moses’ are next. You would almost think ‘Beast’ is going to be a morality tale after witnessing how Tuf, a vegetarian, imposes his no-meat rule on anyone visiting his ship, but, not at all. He treats animals as disposably as his clients do. Lastly is ‘Manna From Heaven,’ a final confrontation at the Port which contains a philosophical showdown with the Port Manager.

This felt very old-school sci-fi. The universe felt like it had less to do with cohesive world-building and more the sci-fi version of Star Trek. The ship, you see, is thirty kilometers long, normally crewed by two hundred, but able to be ran–largely–by one person after reading a few manuals. You can clone anything you like, from cat to T.rex, and the defense system includes monsters from the lesser-known pockets of the universe.

It’s a great premise, and I was expecting something along the lines of ‘humble man achieves power and imposes order to chaotic systems,’ but instead it felt like half morality tale, half destructive wish fulfillment fantasy. Much like a djinn, Tuf often obeys the letter of the requests made to him–giving people what they ask for, but not what they need. In exchange, just a few million or so, to help him pay off his own debt. I’d have less problem with it if it wasn’t clear from the story that hundreds, to thousands to millions were suffering while he let the leaders screw around, essentially punishing them until they agreed to his point of view. Early on, the Port Manager makes the point of how absolute power corrupts. While I’m not sure Tuf was corrupted, I think being an asshole plus having an excessive amount of power certainly facilitated his being an asshole on a very large scale. Larger questions of the stability of a society are indirectly referred to as a potential consequence, but neither Tuf nor the reader gets to see them.

I don’t know about you, but I was giving serious consideration to Tuf as George R.R. Martin’s alter ego. Drinking his dark beer, complaining about the quality of food on other planets, and basically complaining about how no one gives him the benefit of the doubt or treats him with suspicion when he does so very badly at conveying his ideas. His solution in ‘Loaves and Fishes’ takes 45 days of him isolating himself and working away without a word to anyone. (I suspect Tuf was working on the outline to GoT). I mean, tell me that this quote doesn’t sound like George commenting on a policy of choice: “Yet, poisonous cynic that I am, I cannot help but suspect that ultimately the S’uthlamese may decide that some lives are more sacred than others.”

I was reminded a great deal of James White’s Sector General series, about a deep-space hospital that catered to beings of all natures. While Tuf Voyaging does manage to avoid a lot of the misogyny and cultural centrism that that time period can be known for, the collection has limitations. ‘Guardians’ is by far the least problematic story, and got Martin nominated for an award or two. Enjoyment hinges on being able to just let details go and see where the ride takes you. Oh, and it helps if you love cats.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , | 10 Comments

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Read January 2021
 ★     ★     ★

P. Djèlí Clark is one of those authors that’s on my ‘to watch’ list. You might even say I’m a fan. I’ve read through most of his short stories and purchased the novella(s?), something I don’t do that for just anyone these days. I was anticipating A Master of Djinn and when it appeared on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to request it. Imagine my delight when I was approved; it was like Christmas in January. So now I find myself in a quandary, because of that most troublesome phenomenon, hope-experience mismatch.

Set in the same world as The Haunting of Tram Car 015, it follows Agent Fatma as she’s on a big case–that of the British aristocrat and a number of his guests being mysteriously murdered. In the eternal style of the buddy-flick, she’s also assigned a new partner, the enthusiastic rookie Hadia. Hadia was one of the joys of this story, and if she’s a bit of a Mary-Sue, it’s a relief, because the story is badly in need of competent protagonists.

Inventive worlds are one of Clark’s hallmarks, and it’s fun to see alternate-Egypt fleshed out. The investigation goes from the Ministry building to Fatma’s apartment building, to  an underground nightclub, to various unique locations in the city, and I enjoyed getting more feel for the locations, and some of the characters in each.

Plot, however, was problematic. While it initially to be a murder investigation, it turns out that a much larger game is afoot that ultimately (spoiler: reminded me of a Scooby-Doo episode). At times, however, the story felt scattershot, too many asides that pulled focus away. World politics were awkwardly inserted halfway through–perhaps as a way to up the tension–and it turns out there’s also goblins. Unfortunately, I ended up with more questions, having accepted the premise of the adjacent-world for the djinn. The short explanation didn’t square for me, but perhaps someone else will read it differently.  “Folktales were collected and scoured for any practical use. Djinn were not native to the country, but there were other creatures–chief among them goblins… allowing [redacted] to rapidly grow in its magical and industrial expertise.”

You see, to me this introduced the idea that magic was more common and integrated into societies than just the djinn. So why isn’t Fatma better at noticing it? Investigating it? There’s a character who is an acolyte to one of the old Egyptian gods, and every time Fatma runs into him, she’s struck by the odd appearance, as if they are changing into that god. Yet what does she think when she sees them near final transformation? “A man who thought he was an ancient god and was now disfiguring himself.” Really? I don’t understand–we have a world with djinn and goblins and our main character works for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and she thinks someone is disfiguring themselves?

Later there’s someone else who confesses a secret that she should have noticed, and she thinks, “what kind of investigator was this unaware of what was going on right in front of her eyes.” I absolutely agree; she’s actually quite unobservant on multiple occasions, which ends up causing strife in different ways. I realized reading this that I was coming to the conclusion that Fatma is not competent at her job. The question is, does Clark realize it? Is she a character who we should laugh at for her obsession with her clothes over her job. My intuition is that is not his intention, and it’s substitution for plot development (spoiler: she literally has people telling her where to go next).

Also awkward was the frequent use of non-English words. I’m no stranger to sci-fi and am more than used to figuring context of a word, but at times it was excessive, to the point of inhibiting story meaning and flow:

“They wore full-length black kaftans with red tarbooshes. Seated on the modish moss-green divan, were three women, each dressed in a black sebleh and wrapped in a milaya lef. Their faces were hidden behind matching bur’a, though their heads were strangely uncovered. ‘Agent Fatma,’ one called in a familiar voice.”

To make it worse, my kindle wasn’t having it. Brat.

I can’t help but contrast this with the focus and meaning in Clark’s novella and short stories, and I’m left thinking that Clark is just better in shorter form. This has too many side bits that don’t feel integrated to me. It’s definitely not a murder-mystery as much as a thriller fantasy. Add a lead character that I found myself withdrawing from and it ended up being something less enjoyable than expected. To remind myself of how good Clark is, I went back and read one of his shorts I had missed and found a tight little horrific tale, ‘Night Doctors.’ Damnit! That’s what makes this so hard.

Ultimately, it’s better than most of what you will find out there. But it doesn’t live up to his reputation.

Many, many thanks to Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the advanced review copy.

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Hotshot by Peter Watts

Hm. This feels a little more fragment than full story, but I like it. The descriptions strongly recalled shades of Zelazny’s story about deep-sea fishing on Venus, The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.

It’s very much old-school sci-fi, dropping you in and letting you figure it out, but my rough impression is that of a genetically engineered person is having life-long doubts about her mission as a long-range/long-life space-farer and wants one last shot at reconsidering. I’m intrigued enough that I’d like to read the rest of the Sunflower Cycle series. I feel like it could have used one more deep edit in two spots.

“Until someone comes up with a neuron that fires without being poked, we’re all just— reacting.”

Best advertisement ever:


“You never know how automatons might react to autonomy. We were not promised bliss, after all. I’ve seen rumors— never confirmed, and notably absent from IE’s orientation uploads— of early tours in which unbound clients clawed their own faces off. These days, the company chooses to err on the side of caution. We’ll experience our freedom in shackles.

Nutshelling Philosophy 101:

“I look deep inside for some spark of new insight, some difference between the Real Will I have now and the mere delusion that’s afflicted every human since the model came out. How would I even know? Is there some LED in my parietal lobe, dark my whole life, that lights up when the leash comes off? Is any decision I make now more autonomous than one I might have made ten minutes ago?…

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Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Read January 2021
Recommended for fans of dark supers
 ★     ★     ★

I’m not saying I was looking for lifestyle alternatives. Just because I’ve left the path of self-sacrificing medical worker doesn’t mean I’m swinging another way. In fact, I might have shelved this on the Infinite TBR List if not for a group of enthusiastic friends. Interestingly, most of us were under the impression that this would be a somewhat humorous look at the hench role–a sort of re-imagination, perhaps a humanized Minions via Despicable Me. It most certainly was not. Instead, it was more a detailed examination of how one slides into the villain role over time. Think Bridget Jones meets Catwoman or some origin story. It’s a book that begs for comparisons, precisely because it is at once so familiar and yet takes a unique spin on a young woman’s professional development, or at least for those more familiar with NYT best-sellers over Marvel Comics.

Although it wasn’t what I expected, Walshots eventually looped me in for the ride.  Anna Tromedlov is the main character, and we meet her en route to a mass interview at a temp firm with her bestie, June. She’s a heartbeat away from being evicted, and she really needs this job. It’s a smart way to develop some empathy–experiencing her downs and ups as she works to change her circumstance. Anna and June have a sarcastic relationship that conceals a lot of affection and though their interactions occasionally feel harsh, they are also funny, and a good entrance for empathy.

“A moment later, Susan, Greg, and I each had a truffle in our mouths–mine was buttercream, Susan got a toffee, and Greg got the extremely cursed orange one, which I decided was an appropriate punishment. ‘They still letting you out today?’ Greg asked, searching for a new chocolate to get the taste out of his mouth.”

It’s well written, with quite believable characters, despite the ‘super’ trappings. In fact, it rather reminded me of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe, with an array of people with ‘powers’ and the social problems that can ensue. It was funny; at a number of moments, I experimented with taking the ‘super’ out of the equation and replacing it with something like ‘Facebook,’ or ‘Lehman Brothers,’ and the story remains just as potent. The moral crises less extreme perhaps (“let’s try this new algorithm’ or ‘let’s make a few loans) but the slide into relativism no less true.

“I admired the clearheadedness with which he’d made these choices, how he’d had some kind of internal direction and followed it, knowing the consequences. When I compared it to m y own story, I saw just how much I had drifted and fallen, rudderless, in the beginning.”

Let that be a lesson.

A little slow at first, eventually there was a point where I did not want to stop reading and stayed up too late to finish. Well-written, seditious and unexpected. I went into it knowing the blurb and enjoyed the fact that at a couple of points, I had absolutely no idea what way the plot was going to go (evil? good? renunciation? redemption?). I’ve avoided more detail in this review because I don’t want to give any expectations. While there were times that I definitely did chuckle, it was not a funny book. You want more detail, you think? Then I highly recommend reviews from buddies jade and Nataliya.

Thank you to Barbara,  jade, Nataliya, and Stephen for the buddy-read! 

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