Abducticon by Alma Alexander

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

ABDUCTICON was a fun romp sort of read. It was beautiful in its simplicity and lack of complication. It set out to be a fun tribute to science fiction and the surrounding con culture and I think it did just that. Of course, the lack of complexity did make for some convenient moments and the simplicity sometimes meant that the novel didn’t delve as deeply as I like in my science fiction and occasionally over-simplified, but these things didn’t significantly take away from my enjoyment of the book. I accepted it for what it was, and it was good fun.

I like to think the author kept a spreadsheet of every reference she made in the novel (how else would one keep track of which ones had already been made?) and I would LOVE to see that spread sheet. I KNOW I missed quite a few of these Easter eggs, but the ones I did find filled me with no small amount of delight. Sometimes those inside jokes and references feel like they’re slyly sneaked in by the author with undertones of smug self-satisfaction, but I felt none of that here. They were there for the pure enjoyment of the reader AND author. This was much of the charm of the novel. We were all here together to have a BLAST.

While much of the fan culture felt very familiar, this was the place the book suffered the grossest of over-simplifications and I think it would have benefited from just a touch more complexity in describing the types of people who staffed and went to conventions. I think the author did the book a disservice by painted too-broad strokes in that area and spending more time than necessary detailing things like some of the meetings behind the scenes of the con.

This problem lead to some unfortunately poor characterization and a confusion of who the main characters were. I would have told you the main characters were two ENTIRELY different people after the first few chapters than I would now. I was especially disappointed in Andie Mae’s end point and Angel Silverman as a whole (and her husband’s treatment of her). I feel like both those women could have used a little more attention in the novel. Also, some relationships weren’t particularly clear because of this broad-strokes characterization.

B (good, simple fun; charming fan-culture/scifi tribute; Easter eggs a joy | over-broad simplifications in character, too much unnecessary detail in plot; poor characterization in a couple key instances)

A New Day at Midnight by Michelle Hiscox

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

First, the good things: The book is a quick read. The writing is, generally, of a good pace and pleasant flow. Also, the romance wasn’t rushed, which is a particular annoyance of mine. This is not to say the romance was perfect (my objections will come below), but the author did give the relationship time to develop. The sex scenes were some of the better writing in the book – her efforts showed especially in depictions of physical sensations/situations (both positive and negative). The author also did a very good job talking about saving a life by turning someone into a vampire when the victim is unable to consent, and the morality and power dynamics in a such situations. This is a point that I feel is often skipped over in vampire narratives (there’s plenty of angst, but very little discussion of responsibility/consent), and I appreciate that she took the time to explore the nooks and crannies of that particular aspect.

Unfortunately, those were not enough to redeem the book. This book has the triple threat of racial violence, domestic abuse, and man-pain (the function in entertainment by which a female character is hurt/tortured/kidnapped/killed as motivation for a male character to act) all within the first few chapters. Needless to say, my motivation to finish the book was scant. But finish I did! I cannot say I was particularly pleased with the results.

This book shows a stunning lack of imagination. This is not to say that the author wrote a boring world. She did not. However, the world she wrote was filled with stereotypes and poor (or no) research about the complex society in which the main characters spend most of their time – Romani society. A quick internet search would have made this book MUCH better because the portrayal of the Romani would have been so much more nuanced and wouldn’t feel appropriative. I was HORRIFIED to read, multiple times in the first few pages, the racial slur generally used for the Romani people. There are better ways to portray ignorance of a culture or prejudice against it. Taboo racial slurs are an unimaginative shortcut and tell the reader this character is prejudiced/ignorant rather than SHOW it. However, my horror was NOTHING compared to the disgust I felt when after a Romani character corrected the ignorant use of the slur by the main character with, “We prefer Romani,” that the main character CONTINUED TO USE IT for a few more chapters. Also, the word was still peppered through the script. Also, the text is full of micro-aggressions (like the surprised exclamation “You speak English so well!”) and fetishizing of the Romani. Not to mention, when using Romani mythology, she mixed it with another mythological tradition to the point that the original legend was nearly obscured. Everything about the treatment of the Romani felt extremely squicky.

Women in this story tend to be acted upon rather than act themselves. It’s a frustrating thing to read. Especially the sister, Anya, who seemed completely there to be acted upon, rather than act. The main character swung between two poles: completely inactive to amazingly decisive. It was awkward and inconsistent. In the main, however, she was a body acted upon and I very much so dislike a main character who has little agency. So, while the romance wasn’t rushed, it was almost entirely on the male character’s terms, which made the pace of the thing feel less like a victory. SPOILER: A slave falls in love with their master! That’s so very gross and never ONCE did the novel even think to address the power dynamic there. If you absolutely MUST use that trope, at least bother to do it with a LITTLE respect. Considering that the author did an extremely good job of addressing the power dynamics of being a vampire faced with a dying person, this lack was BAFFLING. The book felt a lot like a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite faerie tale and while the book recognizably follows the sense of the story, it does so without ever capturing the true spirit and intent of it.

I could not get a sense of time period, because there were language functions that felt very 1800’s and some that felt very 1900’s. This is what broke the pleasant flow of the narrative the most. I was thrown out of the novel several times when the language changed from older usage to more modern usage (especially when the characters swore – the usages felt much more modern). Also, bride prices and slaves were a thing, making a case for the older time period, but again the language felt very modern.

I also believe that much of the errors in the novel were editorial mistakes. Some of them were convoluted sentences that needed a firm hand, some were formatting errors, but none of these did an already flawed novel any favors. Frustration on top of disappointment makes for an unsatisfying reading experience. This is not the first time I have read a book published by Bookkus and have felt similarly dissatisfied with the editing. I think this author’s book could have been much better, had she had a little more editorial guidance.

A note of confusion: I’m not sure I understand the origin of the title. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not sure the title is appropriately descriptive of the book. At the same time, there is something of the “new beginnings” feeling in the book. It’s not a bad title, but it doesn’t quite do it for me either.

D (Pacing and flow generally satisfying, romance not rushed, depictions of physical acts well-written, addresses vampire aspects often dismissed; appropriation of culture, time period inconsistencies, poorly discussed power dynamics, female characters lacking in agency, poor editing)

Learning the Ropes by Monique Polak

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review Program.

This book was a nice, quick read. It’s written in first person present, which is not my favorite style of writing, so that’s part of why I only gave it a B-. Also, it feels like the main character concentrates on differences more than on people and that makes it really hard to sympathize with her. She’s so busy pushing people into boxes, you almost long for a different perspective. The circus aspects are not well explained for the lay-person, either. However, the book contains a lot of good lessons about generosity and kindness and hurt in a fairly short period of time. It’s good, but it doesn’t quite make it to great.

B- (good lessons, quick read; unsatisfying character interactions, poorly explained terminology)

Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods edited by Liana Kerzner and Jerome Stueart

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review Program.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this anthology. So often, religion is treated with derision or deemed “for the other people” in speculative fiction. That’s not to say there isn’t some of that in this anthology, but that this anthology shows varied and complex views. It was not, as I feared it might be, one note. I was hoping for a few more science fiction stories and a few less fantasy stories, admittedly, but I did appreciate that many stories included more than one religion in them. Interaction between religions is as much part of religion as observance is. This is also the first anthology I’ve read that has short stories and poetry in it. The change of pace between the forms was a little jarring, but I did find one poem particularly poignant, and the switch made me pay more attention to them. I had several favorite pieces and only one or two that made me cringe at the treatment of the religion in question. This anthology is by no means perfect, but it did do what I wanted it to.

A- (diverse opinions about religions, diversity in cast and character, diversity in faiths; occasionally jarring, a couple poorly portrayed/respected faiths)

The Blackwell Family Secret by John L. Ferrara

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review Program.

I am a big fan of Christian myth and lore, especially devil and angel lore. Watching the line blur between faith and fiction has always been something I did with some interest (I am a Christian myself, so understanding the line is a goal of mine). The explorations of those lores were probably the most interesting parts of THE BLACKWELL FAMILY SECRET, though underdeveloped, but unfortunately the main character was a pretty ungrateful and jerky turn off from those parts of the book that were interesting. Teenage-hood aside, I feel like his personality was a disservice to the plot and would have been interested in seeing this book told from the side of the girl sent by the Vatican to protect the main character, Nick.

C: interesting premise and decently fast read; main character makes the rest hard to appreciate

Agony of the Gods by Tom Wolosz

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

This book was not for me. The writing in AGONY OF THE GODS is plodding and belabored with an overabundance of purple prose and ineffective inner monologues filled with angst that doesn’t feel warranted. The “her” character is unbelievably fierce and yet seems pleased to play the passive in order to obtain information, but it feels so terribly out of character from her inner monologues that it’s incomprehensible as a character decision. In the first few chapters, the “his” character CANNOT stop obsessing about the “her” character’s beauty, yet keeps reminding himself that he has more important things to do and the constant back and forth in his own head throws me out of the narrative every time. Also, this book seems to subscribe to the motto, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and I HATE that. I don’t believe that evil and harm (particularly sexual harm) to others is the natural descent of humanity as it holds great power.

This book’s plot is interesting, but the execution turned me off.

C-: interesting premise, distinct world building; writing stilted, characters inconsistent

Signatures by James A. Hetley

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

I appreciate a book that puts limits on magic. I hate wizards who are one step removed from gods. Magic has a cost and I really appreciate it when it is the wizard (and not the amorphous universe or animals or plants) who has to pay that cost. That was one of the first things I noticed and appreciated about SIGNATURES. I felt like this was magic I could relate to because it wasn’t some all-powerful deus ex-machina. It was a tool that served several functions, but there were places it could not go. I also liked the subversion of the ‘long-lived magician’ trope. Magic, in this book, actually limits the life of the user because of how it burns energy for them. That was excellent. Also, the way the mystery was laid out was extremely interesting. I liked how things worked together and wove into each other. The plot was fun to follow and it was well-paced. I wanted to know who the killer was, but I didn’t mind the side trips into relevant details because they kept things moving in the right direction.

But even with all that good, I gotta say – the narrative devices didn’t work. The detective tells us at the beginning that he’s conflated cases to protect identities, he’s out-right lied in places, he’s not telling the story as it was but in a way that still gets it off his chest. Fine. Cool. Good to know. But the detective often breaks the fourth wall to remind the reader of that fact (and other things, too) and IT IS SO DISTRACTING. It took me about a week to read this book because I kept getting thrown out of the story by the narrator. The main character (and his unlikely sex god status) was CLEARLY wish-fulfillment and made it pretty darn obvious this book was written by a middle-aged white dude. This was also something that constantly threw me out of the narrative and the narrator’s fourth-wall breaking humble brags (In the vein of: “I know what you’re thinking, it’s totally unlikely that a fat, balding, retired cop would gather all these women to him, but I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS THEY JUST THROW THEMSELVES AT ME!”) just made it worse. Each of the last four chapters felt like it should have been the ending, but there seemed to always be more chapters. !!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!! The author clearly tried to be inclusive, but the only diverse characters all DIE and one of them *entirely* unnecessarily – oh, and she’s PREGNANT (‘woman’s death is more tragic because she is pregnant’ is the most disgustingly over-used trope and I hate it and it should die). Also, the reveal of why these crimes were committed was so pathetic and tired and trope-tastic, it made me shout in anger.

In short: the book tried really hard, but ended up being VERY problematic.

C-: Plot was interesting, magic system well-developed and unique; trope-heavy, clichéd, and non-functional narrative devices.