BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book begins with a family being murdered by Jack, a cold-hearted killer – a family all save the infant. It’s readily apparent that this isn’t a random violent crime. For one thing, the fiend is far more concerned with finding the baby so as to complete his treacherous task than he is with absconding with loot or reveling in carnage. We don’t know why the family is killed or how a baby could possibly be a worthy target for an assassin, but it’s a mystery that will play out over the course of the book. What we do know is that the boy, Bod – short for Nobody [Owens] – crawled from his crib, out of the house, and into a graveyard that night and that he was taken in by the dead [and a vampiric guardian named Silas] and granted free access to the graveyard.

While the plot is about a killer on the loose intent on murdering Bod, a lot of the book deals with the boy’s challenges as the one living human among a community of the dead. Silas and his adoptive – if deceased – parents, the Owenses, are reluctant to let the boy out of the graveyard because they know he is in danger and they can protect him there were a different set of rules apply, but he has a desire to experience the world. An abortive experiment with going to school fails because Bod sticks up for bullied kids and can’t help but employ some of the skills he’s acquired as a denizen of the graveyard. In the graveyard, he is a living person among the dead, but he is no less the outsider among the living.

This is written for a young audience, and is therefore highly readable while avoiding all the gore that one might expect of a book that begins in murder. Gaiman masterfully creates the ghoulishness and suspense without being horror, per se. I’d recommend this book for readers of low (intrusion) fantasy works.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A twelve-year-old boy, Conor, is forced into early adulthood when his mother is laid low by a terminal illness. Conor’s father is remarried and lives across the ocean in America (the book is set in England.) When Conor’s mother has to be hospitalized, Conor must go to stay with his grandmother. This is undesirable both because Conor longs for a return to normality and because his grandmother— while a fundamentally caring woman—is much more uptight and prim than Conor’s mother.

Conor has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare of late, and when the Yew tree from outside his window comes to life, the Yew tree monster is, relatively speaking, a welcome relief from the much more dire scene that confronts Conor nightly in his nightmare. The Monster informs Conor that it will tell the boy three stories over multiple nights, and when it is done Conor will be required to return the favor by telling the Monster one true story in return. The book plays out with the monster telling Conor stories as well as encouraging the boy to act out to release the building tension that threatens to destroy him. All the while, the story builds toward a moment of reckoning. The idea of repressed rage building into a monster of its own is central to this work.

The book is generally classed as “low fantasy”—a genre in which a limited supernatural element barges into an otherwise real world story. However, it can arguably be read as more psychological in nature. When the Monster visits, Conor finds evidence of his presence— e.g. leaves and berries—but to my recollection no one ever sees such evidence besides Conor, and so the reader is free to view these clues as harbingers of a descent into madness.

The book, itself, has an interesting back story. Apparently, the idea came from Siobhan Dowd, a writer of children’s / YA literature, when she had cancer. Patrick Ness was brought in after Dowd died to take her characters and premise and turn them into a book. Ness completed the book, which was made into a film a couple of years back.

I’d highly recommend this book. It builds and maintains tension throughout the story and is highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird, Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron

Doctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the WeirdDoctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first arc of a multi-arc story. The Volume consists of “Doctor Strange” (2015), #1-5.

Something even more mysterious and odd than usual is afoot. An unprecedented number of trans-dimensional beings have taken up residence on Earth. Magic begins to go on the fritz. The Sorcerer Supreme of other dimensions are being executed. A mysterious enemy, with powers based in technology, threatens the very existence of magic–not only in our universe, but throughout the multiverse. Magicians are constantly under attack in the world of Doctor Strange, but in this case the killing of magicians is just collateral damage in a battle of bigger stakes.

A new character, Zelma Stanton, is introduced. She’s a young librarian who seeks out the help of Doctor Strange because she has grown a nefarious looking toothy maw at the top of her skull—some kind of previously unseen mind maggot. In treating her for said maggots, the wild and weird creatures are set loose upon Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Doctor Strange hires Stanton to reorganize his library. She provides a straight-man of sorts, a muggle’s eye reaction to the weird world of Doctor Strange.

The theme of this story is that there’s always a cost associated with the use of magic. This idea (which, stated differently, is also the central premise of economics—i.e. no free lunches) is an important rule for any literary world containing magic, because free lunches drain all tension from a story. In this case, it’s not just a principle sitting the background, its ramifications are explicit.

I enjoyed this book. I found the story premise intriguing and the dialogue well-written. The artwork was easy to follow and suitable strange. The art was imaginative. It can’t be easy to convey weirdness on a grand scale, but Chris Bachalo seemed to make it work.

I’d recommend this book for fans of Doctor Strange and others who like fantastical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Neverwhere taps into a reader’s imagination and the fantasy that beyond closed doors and locked grates, beyond the prying eyes of common men, lies something magical—not just the mundane sewers and conduits our rational mind tells us exist there. This magical world is “London Below,” and–to a lesser extent–rooftop London. It’s a world that exists below the workaday London that we know. It’s a London of angels and cutthroats, witches and warriors. It’s a London trapped in time, but unconstrained by the laws of physics or men as we know them.

The lead character is Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal resident of London Above. He has a fine—if boring—job in the business world, and a fiancé isn’t right for him, but who he believes is close enough for an imperfect world by virtue of her being pretty, smart, and capable.

Mayhew is living an ordinary and comfortable life until he and his girlfriend come across an injured young woman on the street. While his fiancé, Jessica, steps over the girl because the couple are on their way to meet Jessica’s VIP boss, Richard refuses to leave the girl. The injured girl is a resident of London Below, and had collapsed to the sidewalk after escaping from the two London Below master assassins who killed her family. It turns out the girl, Door, is from a family whose magical gift is the ability to open doors—even doors that are locked, sealed, or that no one even recognizes the existence of. As no good deed goes unpunished, Richard’s assistance of Door pulls him into the world of London Below, and he soon finds that he’s almost invisible to the residents of London Above and that he’s been forgotten by Jessica, his friends, and his coworkers.

The rest of the book is a hero’s quest in which Door is trying to discover who ordered the assassination of her family and why, and Richard is trying to find out whether (and, if so, how) he can get back his life in London Above. Because the fates of Richard and Door are intertwined, they travel together along with a bodyguard named Hunter and a Marquis / conman in the debt of Door’s father named the Marquis de Carabas.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s highly readable and the reader will be drawn to the fate of the characters. It has that page-turner quality. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who reads fantasy / speculative fiction–or who doesn’t but is willing to give it a try.

Neil Gaiman is, as always, the master storyteller. When the story calls for humor, it is genuinely funny. When it’s time to be scary, it creates shivers. The storytelling was good enough that I was willing to overlook an ending that—in less capable hands—would have felt flat and too easy.

I didn’t realize that Neverwhere was based on a BBC miniseries. In other words, for a change the book is based on the movie rather than the other way round. However, the book does concisely but vividly portray setting—a task that one might imagine being easier having gone in this developmental direction. And, of course, setting is extremely important in this book. The distinct feel of London Below, London Above, and Rooftop London must be conveyed.

Here is a link to a piece of said BBC miniseries:

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place in a world in which the supernatural and spectacular lay camouflaged amid the most mundane of settings. The story is about a boy’s interaction with a tri-generational household of women who I’ll—controversially—call “good witches.” The characters explicitly gainsay the title of “witch,” but for lack of any better term with which to describe these ladies other than “a trio of females with supernatural abilities and benevolent purpose,” I’ll call them good witches.

In particular the boy befriends the youngest good witch, a girl who physically appears not much older than he, but whom he comes to realize seems much older. It’s the girl who refers to the pond on her family homestead as the “Ocean.” The girl introduces the unnamed boyish male lead to a supernatural parallel universe, but—in doing so—unwittingly gets the boy tangled up in peril. The boy tracks a portal into his world through which a malevolent creature can slip through. The shape-shifting creature becomes his nanny. However, he is the only one in his family who can recognize the creature’s true nature, and it will do anything to keep the boy from ruining its new gig.

The good witches become the boy’s protectors, and powerful protectors they are. But they aren’t omnipotent, and the forces arrayed against them are formidable as well. Among the morals of the story are that the more powerful enemy of one’s enemy is not only not necessarily one’s friend, but may spell one’s doom. The book also speaks to the rashness of youth running headlong into trouble, and the value of wisdom and experience to find solutions.

This book is short and highly readable. It’s appropriate for young adult readers, but can be enjoyed by adult readers as well. The ending is slightly too deus ex machina for my taste, but overall it’s an intriguing book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.

I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.

What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)

I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.

Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:

“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”

“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”

“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”

“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”

Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.

The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.

If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.

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