From Little Red Reviewer

I heard about Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month thanks to my friend Lydia Schoch, whose own post about Philip K. Dick’s novelette Second Variety you can read here. It so happened I had recently read The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and so this seemed a perfect chance to give my thoughts on it.

The Caves of Steel is an interesting blend of genres: it combines many of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction with sci-fi elements. It’s set in the distant future, when humanity has colonized other planets and turned the Earth into a kind of sprawling city.

The humans who have colonized the outer worlds view the people of Earth with trepidation. These “Spacers,” who are regarded as nearly super-human, with exceptional physical conditioning, nevertheless fear Earth-borne diseases and so have isolated themselves in a place called, appropriately enough, Spacetown.

Earthlings, for their part, view the Spacers with distrust bordering on hatred, seeing them as arrogant elitists who look down their noses on the good citizens of Earth. And then there’s the Spacer’s routine use of robots, which are already despised on Earth because they threaten to take jobs away from human beings.

Indeed, the first character we meet is R. Sammy–the “R” is for robot, and he has taken the job of a man who worked at the police station, much to the annoyance of our protagonist, Elijah Baley. Baley is a classic detective character–a good, honest, somewhat curmudgeonly-but-basically-good-hearted man.

Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer, Dr. Sarton. With tensions already rising between the people of Earth and the Spacers, the murder could prove politically devastating if it is found to have been committed by an Earth-person. However, the Spacers have agreed to allow an Earth policeman to investigate the case–as long as he is partnered with one of their own personnel, by the name of R. Daneel Olivaw.

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Image via Wikipedia

Yes, you guessed it–the “R” again stands for robot. Baley is required to work with an extremely human-like robot, and their early investigations are a classic buddy cop story, with the two first clashing, then gradually learning each other’s styles.

Baley and Olivaw uncover the activities of a group known as the Medievalists–a luddite-like outfit whose members despise robots and other aspects of modern life, seeking to cultivate and preserve habits of the distant past. Some more radical elements of the group seem capable of carrying out the crime that occurred at Spacetown. Then again, as Baley repeatedly argues, perhaps the Spacers are trying to frame the people of Earth to further their own agenda.

It all builds up to a conclusion that, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. And that’s always the key element in a successful mystery.

There are a lot of elements to the story that seem highly-relevant today: political and terrorist movements motivated by nostalgia, automatons replacing human laborers, prejudice against foreigners, colonialism… the list goes on. Asimov was a keen observer of human nature, and that’s why his books still feel so fresh today.

That said, not everything about the book rang true. The idea of underground cities where millions live packed together, never venturing out into the sunshine and open countryside, feels like a hellish dystopia to me, even if Asimov himself loved the idea.

Also, there’s a subplot with Baley’s wife, whose name is Jezebel, a fact which is of more significance to her than I would think is normal. It’s not a bad sub-plot, it’s just… odd. The depiction of female characters here was not great–women are mostly portrayed as irrational gossips, to the extent they are portrayed at all.

Still, it was an enjoyable mystery with a lot of fascinating social commentaries woven into the world Asimov built. Baley’s dry, sometimes cynical musings are the most enjoyable thing, followed closely by his interactions with Olivaw.

I originally read this book because Ben Trube mentioned that its combination of the science-fiction and detective genres influenced his own novel Surreality, which I love. There is a certain comfort in being guided through an unfamiliar futuristic world by a recognizable stock character like the Grizzled Veteran Detective. It makes an excellent foundation for a story.

SechaThe Secha is an ambiguous and somewhat disturbing short science fiction story. The Secha are a race enslaved by another species known as the Bakkens. Although initially the female Secha narrating the story seems resigned to the Bakkens’ treatment of her and her species, gradually it becomes apparent that the order of things she seemingly takes for granted is anything but pleasant.

There isn’t much detailed description of the Secha, which makes their exact physiology a mystery. I liked this; it left it to the reader to imagine their characteristics. The Bakkens are described in a bit more detail, as are another species known as the Ediks.

The disturbing part comes as the Secha describes the things to which the Bakkens subject her and others of her species. It is both interesting and unsettling; and all the more so because of the ambiguity regarding just what the Secha are. 

Like some other science fiction I’ve reviewed lately, it’s short, but raises a lot of interesting questions for readers to ponder. 

Wounded EagleThis was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality. 

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves. 

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series. 😉

CGThe Cursed Gift is a fantasy novel about a young woman named Leah, a warrior in training and daughter of the King of in a place called Orenheart. Leah’s day-to-day life of combat drills, horseback riding and the drama of being young and in love is disrupted after brigands attack her family, and a mysterious figure named Shalyer appears to threaten the kingdom.

Shalyer is an unfortunate soul, whose tragic past leads him to make a deal with a sinister supernatural beings, the leader of whom is known as Belosh. Belosh is a demon lord who toys with the fates of mortals, chiefly through granting them the power of magic, which the gods have long forbidden them. Belosh drives Shalyer and Leah into conflict, ultimately leading them into a showdown.

As Leah tries to resist the temptation of the dark powers the Demon Lord has granted her, the kingdom increasingly becomes threatened by brigand gangs. Meanwhile, the youthful romances, indiscretions and heartbreaks among Leah’s fellows begin to cripple them, leading to misunderstandings, fights, and worse.

Eventually, Belosh creates a situation where Leah is forced to choose between saving her family or resisting the allure of giving herself fully to the Demon lord. There are more brigand attacks, an extremely memorable funeral scene for a fallen warrior, and, of course, a dramatic final confrontation.

While high fantasy is not a genre I read often, I enjoyed this story and the world in which it is set. One thing that really stood out to me was the description—or more accurately, the lack thereof. Fantasy (like Science Fiction) usually requires a good deal of background and world-building, which means lots of description. But that’s not the case here—there was very little, and that was fine with me. I was impressed at how easily I could visualize things without having to have it all spelled out. It made the book an easy, accessible read. 

I admit this might not be to everyone’s tastes—my rocky relationship with description in fiction is well-known, and perhaps other readers will wish for more detail about Orenheart, Kurabar, and other locales in the tale.

Personally, what I wanted more of was detail about some of the supporting cast. Leah is a strong character, but so are many of the others, especially Shalyer, and I would have liked to know more about them. Also, there is one sub-plot involving King Edmon which never seems fully resolved. (It’s not that it’s unclear—we readers know the whole story, but some of the relevant characters don’t, and it seemed to me like something that would need to be discussed.)

Still, it’s clearly meant to be Leah’s story that’s being told here, and in that regard Spicer definitely succeeded. While preparing this review, I came across this post on Spicer’s blog in which she discusses her process in writing The Cursed Gift. She wanted to write a fantasy that didn’t feel overlong or dragged-out the way so many of them do, and that’s exactly what she did.  It’s a tight, well-paced tale that doesn’t bog the reader down with minutiae. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or adventure novels.

I’ll name a famous book, and then recommend a lesser-known book you should read if you enjoyed it. Ready? Let us begin.

a-confederacy-of-dunces@2xIf you like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole…

…then you should read Incomplete Works, by Noah Goats.iw

The influence of Toole’s legendary comic novel on this book is clear. While the plot isn’t as intricate and the cast not as large, the intelligent, snobbish protagonist of Goats’ novel is definitely a unique character, much like Ignatius J. Reilly.

 

 

HWRIf you like H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator series….

…then you should read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll.
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All right, so this is kind of a layup since the latter is based on the former, but if you are familiar with Lovecraft’s interesting but thinly-sketched serial, you have to read Driscoll’s reimagining, in which she fleshes out Herbert West and his world.

 

 

 

AnnihilationBookIf you like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer…

…then you should read Ocean Echoes, by Sheila Hurst.

Ocean EchoesNow, you might think this is an odd comparison, especially if you only know Annihilation from the movie adaptation, which is much more sci-fi horror. The movie is very good, but also extremely different than the book. Ocean Echoes isn’t as dark as Annihilation, but both are about a biologist who ventures into the unknown while battling mental demons and scars of past relationships. And both are haunting and beautifully-written.

 

 

TheJungleSinclairIf you like The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair…

…then you should read Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin.

Okay, confession time here: I don’t like The Jungle. I like Sinclair’s concept of a novel with a social commentary on the meat industry, but the book itself is boring, repetitive and preachy. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t work.

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckleyEating Bull, on the other hand, totally does work because it’s a gripping page-turner of a killer thriller, and the social commentary is woven into the plot, so it feels natural and organic. So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you read only one novel driven by a social comment on Big Food, make it Eating Bull. Also, it’s a bit more timely, being published more than a century after The Jungle.

 

 

***

Now it’s your turn! Name me some famous books, and then some similar, lesser-known book that you think deserves more attention. And yes, it’s completely fair game if you want to list your own books. Go for it.

TheRavenThis is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.” 

Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.

After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews. 

mother adelliThis is a dark book, about flawed psyches, crises of faith, and unhappy families. It tells the story of a nun, Mary Agnes Adelli, who teaches at a Catholic boarding school in Illinois. One of the students under her charge is a rebellious girl named Helene, who feels abandoned by her father, a doctor who is traveling in Europe.

Helene repeatedly and flagrantly violates the rules of the school, coming into conflict with other students and Mother Adelli herself. Mother Adelli is soft-hearted by nature, and so is ill-suited to manage the student’s behavior, and given little support from her superiors. 

Problems escalate, ultimately to the level of tragedy, and this brings Mother Adelli to confront her beliefs, as well as unexamined pain from her own troubled childhood. 

The prose is beautiful, with gorgeous descriptions of bleak Midwestern landscapes in what seems to be a world of eternal autumn and winter. The characters struggle with complicated emotions, and for the most part, their inner thoughts are complex and believable. 

Technically, there is almost nothing to complain about with this book. One or two very minor typos (well below the average number for an indie book) and a few times, the POV shifted a bit suddenly, but besides that, it was about as beautifully-written a work of literary fiction as I can imagine.

Now, I know I mentioned it already, but I want to hammer the point home: this book is very gloomy. Not only in subject matter, but in tone, in style, in pretty much every way a book can be. It felt as if events were rigged by the cosmos themselves to maximize anguish for the characters. 

I haven’t read a book like this for a long time, but The Calling of Mother Adelli reminded me of the time I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy novels, one after another. Mother Adelli is like a later Hardy novel—think Tess of the D’Urbervilles or especially Jude the Obscure. Beautiful descriptions of bleak landscapes, characters struggling with trauma, grief, and the expectations family, society, and religion have placed upon them—all the things that make a novel Hardy-esque are here.

And some of the same problems I had with Hardy are present as well: in such a grim atmosphere, it was hard for me to find any character to root for. Adelli is sympathetic, but in a way that made me pity her for the misfortune caused by her lapses in judgment, rather than truly wish for her to “succeed” at anything. Every other character was, to a greater or lesser extent, unlikable in some way.   

To be clear, I wouldn’t say it should have been written differently. I think the point of the book is that all human beings have their flaws, and that sometimes these flaws interact with one another in a way that inevitably produces a violent disaster.  (Reconciling this point with the existence of an omniscient, benevolent Creator is another matter, one which the characters also struggle with in the course of the book.)

This is probably not a book for everyone—it’s not a light read, it’s driven by characters rather than plot, and it touches on a number of controversial issues. I don’t want to give away too much, but let me say that while early on I began to expect the tragedy that ultimately occurs about halfway through, it was still quite disturbing to read.

But with all that said, it is certainly a worthwhile book. I made the comparison to Jude the Obscure for more than one reason, because like that novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli has many elements that make for a classic of literary fiction. The writing is gorgeous, and the author clearly took great pains to craft every scene vividly.

This book was brought to my attention by Mark Paxson. On his blog, he cataloged how he aided Keithley’s efforts to get the book independently published after no publisher would take it. And this is why I recommend that you consider reading it: because this book is clearly the labor of someone who spent a great deal of time honing her skill as a writer—a story we would not have the chance to read, if the decision were left solely to publishing companies.  It may not be for everyone, but better that we each have the choice to decide for ourselves, because it is most definitely for some of us.

thekitchenbrigade_ecoverI admit to suffering from dystopia fatigue. I love the classics of the genre, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the last decade has seen so many bleak future/post-apocalyptic/totalitarian government-type stories that it takes a lot for me to pick one up. But after reading Lydia Schoch’s interview of Laurie Boris, I had to give The Kitchen Brigade a shot. And within pages, it won me over.

The Kitchen Brigade is set in 2049, in the remnants of a United States torn by civil war and occupied by Russian forces. Valerie, the daughter of the former U.S. Secretary of State, has been captured by the Russians and forced to work in a kitchen, serving a Russian general and his officers. 

All the women serving in the kitchen are assigned numbers instead of names. Valerie is Three. Gradually, she gets to know the other women, all of whom came there by different routes, and who have different perspectives on the situation; from the foul-mouthed but good-natured Four to the aggressively unpleasant Two, who resents Three and sees her as a threat to her relationship with the main chef, the tough-but-fair Svetlana.

As Valerie gains the respect of Svetlana and the brigade (with the exception of Two) she also begins to realize that the situation is far less stable than it appears, and soon discovers that there are multiple factions jockeying for power, among both the Americans and the Russians, and, as in any good thriller, almost everyone has a hidden agenda.

The prose is clean and the dialogue witty—especially Four, who I think deserves her own spin-off story. Her scenes were a real highlight.

I also loved how Boris gradually tells us the backstory of how the United States collapsed—it’s done in bits and pieces; scraps of information picked up here and there, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear not only what happened, but just how disturbingly plausible the seemingly-unthinkable scenario really is. It’s an all-too-believable vision of how a cyberwar could work.

A few minor gripes: there were a few times when it was hard for me to keep track of where all the characters were during the climactic sequence. It was effective, don’t get me wrong, but I still felt a little confused. It’s a not a big flaw, though; and it could just be that I haven’t read enough thrillers to get the hang of it.

Also–and I’ll be vague here rather than risk giving too much away–there’s one scene where people are oddly reluctant to kill a particularly vile character. Boris did a really good job making this character unlikable, and provided realistic motivation for why the character behaves the way that they do, so major props for that. But this person is so unrelentingly hostile, it’s hard to feel any sympathy, although some characters do anyway.

All in all, this was a very well-crafted dystopia. And Boris has a real knack for describing the elegant dishes the brigade prepares over the course of the book. I probably haven’t given the food preparation scenes their due in this review, because I’m not much of a gourmet myself, but even I could tell they were well-done. (No pun intended.)

Earlier this year, I reviewed the novella Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, by Mayumi Hirtzel. This is another tale of espionage, intrigue, nefarious Russian agents, and people with numbers instead of names. As a fan of old Cold War spy stories like Secret Agent, it’s pretty exciting to me that people are telling stories like this again. If you liked Number Seven, I predict you will also enjoy the Kitchen Brigade. And if, like I was, you’re reluctant to check out another dystopian story, just know that this doesn’t feel like a random tyrant has been inexplicably installed, as is so often the case in dystopian fiction, but is carefully thought-out and well-described. Give it a try.

I’m currently about halfway through The Kitchen Brigade by Laurie Boris. After that, I’ve got Volume Two of The Precipice Dominions by R.J. Llewellyn on tap and after that… really nothing in the way of indie books to read.

So I’m seeking your suggestions. What indie books do you recommend? While not essential, I have a strong preference for those I can get on Kindle. And yes, you can suggest your own book if you want to.

Kevin Brennan’s novel Fascination is on sale for 99 cents, along with his other books. I encourage you to check out his work if you haven’t already. I read Fascination earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. And if my word isn’t enough, take Audrey Driscoll’s and Pat Prescott’s. Once you read it, come back and tell me who you’d cast in a film adaptation. It’s a book that begs to be adapted for the screen.

On Kevin’s blog post announcing the sale, there are a lot of comments about the difficulties authors face in promoting their work on social media, and the fact that many indie authors are read only by other indie authors. Why don’t casual readers pick up an indie book now and then?

Personally, I like having an audience of writers. It means you get good feedback. I’d rather hear the opinions of ten people who understand the creative process than a hundred people who don’t.

Yes, yes; I know the financial compensation for having hundreds or thousands of readers would be nice. But I don’t think the majority of indie authors are really in this for the money.  We’re in it because we have a story we want to tell. And when you tell a story, you want to have an audience that appreciates it.

One reason I often refer to Noah Goats’ novel The Unpublishables is that it speaks to the fact that so many people are writing books nowadays, thanks to indie publishing. And to write books, you have to read books, or you won’t get far. Goats makes this point with humor throughout The Unpublishables.

The more you read, the more you want to write. Mark Paxson put it best in his introduction to The Marfa Lights when he wrote, “Doesn’t every reader secretly believe he or she can write a better story?”

If I were handpicking readers, I’d want people who made that leap–the people who read enough to know they want to write. I suspect the most rewarding feeling for a writer is not having a lot of readers, but having discerning readers.

This may sound arrogant, but my position is, don’t worry if your audience is nothing but other writers. The majority of writers are readers who decided they wanted better stories. If they’re reading your work, it means you’re doing something right.