Thursday, February 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1) by Evan Winter

The Rage of Dragons is the debut novel by Evan Winter, one of the few African-American authors working in the epic fantasy genre. This 2019 work made quite a splash, and when I read it in February 2021 it had well over 16,000 ratings with a very impressive 4.37 average on Goodreads’ 5-point scale. I had made the decision to try and read as many Black authors as I could during Black History Month and selecting Winter’s well-regarded fantasy novel from my burgeoning Kindle TBR pile seemed like a no-brainer.

Most of my reading these days is in genre fiction, but typically I would say I spend more time reading crime fiction, then science fiction and rarely fantasy. However I was impressed very early on by Winter’s characterization of the protagonist of The Rage of Dragons, Tau Solarin. I was even more impressed by the world-building in the novel.

The story in The Rage of Dragons is set in a satisfyingly complex society which has two primary castes: Lessers and Nobles. The two are physically distinctive, although it is clear that both groups would be racialized as “Black” in our contemporary society. Almost all Nobles are taller, faster, stronger than most Lessers. Both are part of the Chosen people or Omehei. Omehei society appears to have a level of technological advancement equivalent to the Bronze Age on Earth. In addition to a society chock full of complicated moral questions Winters adds dragons and a spiritual realm that allows certain Gifted Omehei to practice powerful, specific magical effects such as Enraging (making someone physically bigger and stronger), Enervating (stripping someone of their will and ability to act on their own), Edifying (communicating information over long distances) and Entreating (taking over conscious control of another living thing’s body). Winter situates his story in a historical context where the Omehei have spent 200 “cycles” (presumably solar years) trying to keep control over land on the Xiddan Peninsula that they think they should get to keep because it’s where they landed after they were hunted and nearly exterminated in a land called Osonte located far across the sea by creatures they call The Cull. Omehei believe they were "Chosen" by the Goddess to survive the Cull and their faith in her is why some have been "gifted" with powers and why they survived the rough sea passage from Osonte and also believe they have a right to claim Xiddan as their own.  Unfortunately, it was already occupied by another group of humans, who (rightly, IMO) view the Omehei as invaders and colonizers and have been fighting for generations to expel or exterminate the Omehei. The Omehei also seem to be able to convince dragons to fight on their side fairly regularly and this behavior is viewed as further evidence the Omehei are "chosen by the Goddess."

The Rage of Dragons is an intricate, multi-layered story with several fascinating creations combined together to produce a compelling setting for what is at its heart a fairly traditional plot ("Local boy makes good"). These layers include class (there’s a very explicit and strongly enforced caste system among the Omehei AND a Royal sovereign!); race (almost all the Omehei are described as having skins of various hues ranging from tan to pitch-black); religion (belief in a spiritual world called Isihogo, the realm of demons, as well as an omnipotent, omnipresent, invisible "Goddess."); magic (the previously mentioned Gifted abilities); and war (the Omehei are in a generations-long battle with the original inhabitants of the Xiddan peninsula whom they call “hedeni” who they think are over abundant, light-skinned heathens and savages).

The main character Tau is an 18-year-old Lesser whose best friend Jabari is a Petty Noble and Winter does an excellent job of depicting the unequal opportunities and futures Lessers and Nobles have in Omehei society. Through an unfortunate interaction with a less open-minded Noble than Jabari, Tau’s father is killed early in the book in order to assuage a Noble ego and Tau vows revenge on three specific Noblemen who he sees as ultimately responsible for his father’s thoughtless murder.

The primary animating force of Tau's actions in The Rage of Dragons is revenge against his “betters” and he sets off to prove that he will literally do whatever it takes, no matter how painful or difficult, in order to have an opportunity to strike back at the men who destroyed his family. This makes Tau a sympathetic but also problematic figure. There’s an entire arc of the story which is about how Tau becomes a great warrior, not through some innate or genetic or magical ability but through intense, obsessive hard work, day-in and day-out. This is a nice choice by the author, because although Winter is duplicating a common trope of epic fantasies (the downtrodden orphan who grows up to become more powerful than anyone or he could ever have dreamed) he also subverts the trope by making it clear Tau is NOT the biggest, smartest or “most special” character in the book. Tau makes mistakes and wrong choices, more than once, but these humanize him and greatly strengthened my interest and connection with the character.

I only have a few quibbles with The Rage of Dragons (obviously, since I gave it the highest possible rating of five out of five stars on Goodreads). First of these quibbles are the too-frequent, detailed descriptions of hand-to-hand combat and fight scenes. In some sense it follows because Tau is in military training for more than half the book, but I think the number of paragraphs describing precisely how, who and with what Tau is fighting could have been reduced by half (or more!) with very little reduction in my enjoyment of the book. My second quibble is with the ending and the author’s penchant of raising the stakes by literally killing off multiple major characters in the last 5% of the book; some of the characters killed had been around since the first 5% of the book. This is incredibly gutsy, I guess, and I understand the dilemma the author is in. If he puts all of the characters in peril (or at the very least the vast majority of the ones we care about) and never kills off any, then the peril isn’t real, and the reader may feel cheated. But if he kills off major characters that we have known for the vast majority of the book in a shocking denouement towards its conclusion then it feels overwhelming and the reader feels somewhat cheated for investing in certain relationships that had built up as the story progressed. Winter made the latter choice in The Rage of Dragons and it definitely increased the emotional wallop the book delivers, so maybe he made the "right" choice in this case. I’m not sure there really exists an optimal choice for an author here.

Overall, The Rage of Dragons is an incredibly well-written and powerful debut novel. As I said at the beginning, epic fantasy is not particularly one of my favorite genres but I was thoroughly entertained and entranced by this book and look forward to reading The Fires of Vengeance as soon as the price for the Kindle edition goes on sale!

Title: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1).
Evan Winter.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 544 pages.
Publisher: Orbit.
Date Published: July 16, 2019.
Date Read: February 16, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, February 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Bone Readers (DC Digger, #1) by Jacob Ross

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross is an excellent book in the police-procedural, murder-mystery genre with a great hook: it’s set on a small (fictional) island adjacent to Trinidad and Barbados called Camaho.

The author was born and raised in Grenada (which is an actual island adjacent to Trinidad and Barbados), and so was I! Ross uses his familiarity and comfort with the culture, geography, and language of the West Indies to infuse this story with the verisimilitude of Island life. You can almost taste the mangoes, smell the spicy curry and feel the bumps when driving on the badly paved roads!

The main character in The Bone Readers is Michael “Digger” Digson. In the great tradition of the crime fiction protagonists, Digger has a troubled past and a complex personality. Early on in the book we discover that he’s an “outside child” (illegitimate son) of an important man on the island, the Commissioner of Police. This is a curious coincidence because it is only through some unusual circumstances that Digger became a police officer himself. Basically, he was bullied into doing it by DC Chilman, an apparently alcoholic detective very near retirement with an eye for rudderless youths with the potential and talent to become excellent police officers. Digger lives by himself, in the house left to him by his grandmother, who has raised him since the awful day a little over a decade ago when Digger was a little boy that his mom kissed him and said “Don’t worry, Sweetman, I home a lil later” and never came home again. In fact, her body was never even found but it’s pretty clear she was killed as part of a public protest in 1999 that was violently settled by the police at the time. Part of the reason why Digger agreed to become a cop was so that he could research his mother’s death and disappearance and discover the details of the role his father may have played in her death. 

If you think Digger has a complex personality, Ross is just getting started. Many of the other players in the novel, such as DC Chilman, Miss Stanislaus and Malan Greaves are also fascinating characters. They all have complicated relationships with each other and oftentimes with Digger. As I have said in reviewing other books, a key factor in the assessment of the quality of a genre book is the multifaceted nature of how the secondary characters are depicted. Since most police procedurals are very similar what makes the reader continue to enjoy them and read volume after volume in a long-running genre series are the changes and developments that happen to characters that readers can identify with and/or care about. From this perspective, The Bone Readers is very high-quality first entry in what I hope becomes an extended series of books.

DC Chilman, we discover, has an outside child himself and a surprisingly durable relationship with the Minister of Justice (the most important law enforcement official in the island country.) Malan Greaves is Digger’s boss; he takes over supervision of the Camaho police station after Chilman retires. Malan has his own foibles. He’s married but he’s constantly flirting (and more) with women and is all too eager to engage in violence himself to “keep the peace.” This behavior is forced to change with the arrival of Miss Stanislaus on the force, who wants nothing to do with Malan but notes everything he does. Miss Stanislaus is brilliant, with Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction. But she also has a troubled past, and although her professional and personal disdain for Malan is quite clear, her attitude towards Digger is quite different. They make an intriguing couple, and an effective team.

The pace of the story is somewhat languorous, like the pace of island life, but this doesn’t make The Bone Readers any less compelling. The central mysteries are all “cold cases’ of varying degree. There’s the case of who killed Digger’s mom, which he is obsessed with, for obvious reasons. There’s also the case of a missing young man named Nathan that Chilman is obsessed with and makes Digger (and Malan) promise to focus on after their mentor retires. In their investigation of Nathan’s disappearance, Miss Stanislaus and Digger find out about someone else who has disappeared, a teenaged girl named Alice, and Miss Stanislaus notices that something is very peculiar about the church that Nathan and Alice attended. The Old Hope Spiritual Baptist Church is run by a charismatic (and corpulent) preacher named Deacon Bello who happens to be a spiritual advisor to several very important men on the island, including, it turns out, the Minister of Justice. Miss Stanislaus joins the church and starts living at their compound with several other women and young children, any of whom appear to be curiously similar. However things get hectic when Deacon Bello ends up dead at the hands of Miss Stanislaus using an official police weapon she had never been officially issued.

Overall, reading The Bone Readers, especially for someone who was born (and partially raised) in the Caribbean, is a rare treat and joyful experience. The book shimmies and shimmers with the sounds and sights of the islands. The dialogue has the rhythms and cadences of island patois, and the descriptions reflect the unique look and feel of "home." There are so many familiar (and unfamiliar) little details that produce feelings of nostalgia and pride (“Yes! This is how we/they do!”) which is a very unusual experience for me to have while reading crime fiction, but a welcome one. I think even for people without a familial connection to the islands, the novelty of the setting and the richness of the story will be attractive and compelling. I hope to spend A LOT more time with Miss Stanislaus and DC Digger solving mysteries on Camaho, so I hope Mr. Ross writes more books, and soon!

Title: The Bone Readers.
Jacob Ross.
Kindle: 273 pages.
 Peepal Tree Press.
Date Published: November 8, 2016.
Date Read: February 3, 2021

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A+ (4.17/4.0).


Thursday, February 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3) by John Scalzi

The Last Emperox is the final entry in a space opera from John Scalzi, best known for his Hugo-award winning novel Redshirts and his excellent debut novel, Old Man's War as well as his large social media footprint and record-breaking, multi-million-dollar publishing contract. The Last Emperox completes the story began in The Collapsing Empire and continued in The Consuming Fire

A reviewer at Locus magazine mentioned that they noticed that the The Last Emperox is dedicated "to the women who are done with other people’s shit" and that this is apparent in the centrality of its three primary main characters who are all strong, decisive women. First among these is the last emperox herself, Cardenia Wu-Patrick ak.a. Emperox Grayland II. Cardenia has been pretty much the most central character in the first two books and this doesn't change in this final entry in the series. However, two other female characters, Nadashe Nohamapetan and Kiva Lagos are also central to the story.

To remind you The Interdependency is set in a Universe where interstellar travel occurs via something called The Flow. In the first book some dude, i.e. Lord Marce Claremont, discovered that The Flow was becoming unstable and was likely to stop "flowing" in the not-too-distant future, which would result in entire planets being cut off from the rest of humanity, and likely falling into chaos and starvation. The Interdepenency depends upon extensive trade between planets, using The Flow as a means to transport goods and services between the participating planet. This economic system depends on a near-feudal political system where Houses control various monopolies on certain commodities and supplies, and the most important monopoly is the one run by House Wu (which is the house the Emperox has always come from, for centuries). Thisis the monopoly for ships.

Basically, the entire series is a metaphor for our current world which is facing a cataclysmic future (due to climate change) and currently has economic-political system which is dominated by soulless, corrupt elites. However, being Scalzi, he takes these serious underpinnings and overlays it with profane humor and ridiculous situations. Oftentimes, this style doesn't work for me, but in each of the three books in The Interdependency I found that it was quite effective. The middle book was probably the most appealing of the three to me, but he does do a good job of wrapping up many of the primary conflicts and the plot takes some very surprising turns (including the death of one of the major characters I have mentioned earlier).

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed The Last Emperox more than the average Scalzi book I have read. And acknowledging the degree of difficulty of combining social commentary, space opera and readability, I believe the book (and the series as a whole) has to be considered a success.

Title: The Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3)
John Scalzi .
Pages: 308 pages.
Date Published: April 14, 2020.
Date Read: August 27, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/A- (3.5/4.0).


Thursday, February 04, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Saints of Salvation (Salvage Sequence, #3) by Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton is definitely my favorite science fiction author, and since since science fiction is my favorite genre, he is probably my favorite author overall. He is on my short list of must-buy authors that also includes literary mystery writer Tana French, epic fantasy writer Brent Weeks and British speculative fiction noir aficionado Richard K. Morgan. My must-read list of authors is much longer and includes people like Louise Penny, Peter V. Brett, Alastair Reynolds and many, many mystery-thriller authors whose series I’m making my way through methodically and contentedly. Hamilton has a special place in my heart as the author of the Night’s Dawn trilogy, which is probably my favorite science fiction work. But his duology Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained is not very far behind that classic at the very top of my list of most esteemed reads. Hamilton’s books are huge sprawling works, often thick tomes running into page lengths of 4-digits, peopled with large casts of characters and featuring mind-bending technologies and bizarre physical phenomena.

Hamilton’s latest work is another trilogy, intriguingly called The Salvation Sequence. (This is intriguing because maybe this sequence of books won’t end at three? Hamilton has written many books in what is called the Commonwealth Universe but none of his prior book series using a majority of the same characters and/or same timeline has ever had more than three entries.)

The third book in The Salvation Sequence is The Saints of Salvation, which follows Salvation and Salvation Lost. As I have mentioned before, there are certain themes that often reappear in Hamilton’s works and many, if not all, of these are also present in the Salvation Sequence. Some of these themes are: a futuristic/utopian society, disruptive technology (often involving novel transportation methods), culturally opaque aliens, incredibly wealthy and powerful tycoons, secret/double agents and extinction-level threats to civilization.

In The Saints of Salvation, the two timelines of the plot from the previous books in the sequence (one plot line depicts the invasion of Earth by previously benevolent aliens and the other plot line is 10,000 years in the future where technologically advanced humans are planning to strike back against the aliens after the surviving human refugees escaped into the empty spaces of the galaxy) eventually intersect in a surprising way.

Time, especially the manipulation of time as another feature of the physical world like gravity, becomes an increasingly important of the story in The Saints of Salvation. The animating reason behind the alien invasion of Earth is that the aliens claim to have received a message from the future from a being whom they call “The God at the End of Time” telling them to bring as many sentient creatures to him as they can. The aliens’ response to their God’s message is to seek out intelligent civilizations and place individuals in life-preserving cocoons in their ships and take them to their secret enclave until the end of time. The aliens have been doing this for literally millions of years and are often an order of magnitude more advanced than the other civilizations they meet/cull/kidnap and bring back to their enclave, whose location is their greatest secret. We learn that the aliens have the ability to slow and accelerate the passage of time, which they use to maintain the alien civilians they have collected in stasis. Humans eventually also learn how to manipulate time as well, which makes travel at relativistic speeds over vast distances possible within a human lifetime.

Hamilton’s books are often peopled with huge casts of characters, many of whom don’t make it to the end. The Salvation sequence is anchored around a group of five main characters, called the Saints. One of the key plot points in the first two books when we’re experiencing the story told in two time lines set thousands of years apart is to try and figure which characters in the earlier time line become beatified as Saints by the surviving humans in the later time line.

In The Saints of Salvation, we follow the Saints for a large part of the story. The other main thread in this books follows two advanced humans, named Dellian and Yirella, who lead a cadre of humans in the far future that are trying to finally get revenge on the aliens who forced humanity to abandon Earth and go into hiding millennia before.

One way that The Saints of Salvation and the other books in the Salvation sequence is very different from prior Hamilton works is the depiction of gender. As an indicator of technological and sociological advancement, Hamilton has characters who are non-binary and uses specialized pronouns (like sie, hir) to describe them. This occurs in the earlier timeline (which is set in the early 23rd century), where humanity has started forming habitats with their own cultural and social standards. In addition to non-binary characters, there are also characters who cycle between more male and more female presentations. In the beginning these depictions of gender can be somewhat distracting but eventually the reality of non-binary or (literally) gender-fluid characters becomes pretty standard. None of the main characters are non-binary but several of the important/pivotal ones, especially in the last book, are. A definite gap in the diversity of Hamilton’s characters is the lack of any openly LGB characters as we would perceive them, although there is some same-sex attraction (and perhaps bisexual sexual activity?) portrayed. Interestingly, he often does go out of his way to indicate racial and ethnic diversity in his books, and this is true here as well, although white British people are (unsurprisingly) over represented.

Overall, The Saints of Salvation is a fantastic final entry in another amazing, mind-bending space opera written by a science fiction grandmaster operating at the peak of his powers. If you have enjoyed his other similar, equally impressive works, such as Pandora’s Star / Judas Unchained, the Night’s Dawn trilogy, Great North Road, and A Night Without Stars / The Abyss Beyond Dreams, I am very confident you will enjoy the Salvation Sequence as well.

Title: The Saints of Salvation.
Peter F. Hamilton.
Pages: 528 pages.
Date Published: October 20, 2020.
Date Read: January 17, 2021.

★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.0/4.0).



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