Elijah’s Chariot: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week I read Elijah’s Chariot, first book of The Forgotten Children series, by Andrew Griffard.

I’ll level with you and get the worst of it out of the way right up-front: I was a little put off by the title here. It just … look, Elijah just isn’t an interesting name. It isn’t. When you see a book with Elijah in the title, it makes you feel like you’re about to get preached at by an Amish dude. And I’m here to read some goddamn sci-fi. I know Elijah Bailey was named Elijah but the thing you need to know about that is, that was the worst thing about Asimov’s Robot books and it still bores me enough to make me not want to read them even though I already read them when I was like ten. The name Elijah is so boring – if you’ll continue to indulge me for just a minute – it makes me want to travel back in time thirty-odd years and beat up a small Australian boy and take away his Asimov books. For his own good.

Okay, phew. That was harsh but we got through it. Elijah’s Chariot is a really pretty fucking good book and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Maybe I should have led with that. Oh well, too late now.

I was drawn in by the little nicely-done interactions between the kids and their families, there was some excellent character-building right off the bat which made this really engaging. Irina was a real piece of work. Viktor seemed like a nice kid and it was super interesting to see a protagonist with cerebral palsy, even if that ultimately wasn’t really the point it was a fascinating intro and a nice bit of setting and atmosphere work. I was concerned that something gross was going to happen with Svyeta, but it was another good piece of buildup. Her big ol’ vodka chugging drunk dad was a classic. All in all, really nice. From there, it was easy to get pulled along by the story, which begins to unfold good and fast and oh boy, what happened? What was that? Why was that?

What am I talking about?

Well, since the blurb in Amazon and other product descriptions already basically spoil this, I guess Griffard will be okay with me going there. This book begins as a nicely subdued, slow-burn low-key-menace story about a meteorite (Jerry, named Ilya in Russia and thence came the titular Elijah – no wait come back, I won’t say that name again, don’t beat up ten-year-old me anymore, I was a very frail child) about to hit Earth. Not an extinction-level meteorite, but a this-is-cool-let’s-study-it-yay-science-level meteorite. Sean and his dad travel to Russia where the rock is projected to hit, and we watch it all unfold from there. Will the meteorite be full of killer alien wossnames? Goop that turns everyone into shambling green slime-monsters? This was my guess.

So, the meteorite strikes, and it slows down before landing so we know it’s not natural, but then suddenly people just start to die. Headaches, then death. Boom. It was mildly amusing to see a book written in 2015 dealing with a “pandemic”, incidentally. Interesting. But again, the pandemic and the deaths weren’t really the point, although as far as I’m concerned they could have been. I was perfectly content seeing a new look at an alien invasion through the clever method of spaceborne kill-rocks, and a global collapse like we see in The Stand.

Of course, like The Stand, this book had to go and get weird. Only the adults die, and the surviving kids suddenly get superpowers. That was unnecessary to the story. It’s always unnecessary to the story! But okay, fine, this is where we’re going with this one. I see. Okay. Viktor’s ailments go away and he becomes some kind of genius. And the main protagonist seems to have “everything powers”. Alright. At this point in the story I made a review note for myself that read simply, “what the absolute fuck is going on.”

It was that kind of story! It turned into a New Mutants reboot and it absolutely didn’t have to, but damn it, it was still interesting and so I read on. And you know what?

It checked out. Griffard, you mad crazy sonofabitch, you actually tied it together and explained what was happening in a way that made sense. Un-fucking-believable. I was not expecting that. I was all ready to roll my eyes and call this a superhero novel that was 85% origin story. Which … okay, in one way it kind of is, but damn it, it works.

Sex-o-meter

The book’s mostly about kids, so. You know. I mean there’s a bit of creepiness at the start and obviously once you end up with all the adults dying and the streets getting taken over by a bunch of Russian gangbangers there’s going to be a bit of hankski pankski, but it was ultimately fairly sanitary. It certainly could have been a lot worse and I was bracing myself. I’ll give it an Amish dude out of a possible Amish dude with an ice-cream smooshed in his face, uh, in a sexy way. What, are they going to read this? It’s on a fucking computer.

Gore-o-meter

Not much gore here, although the body-count may be in the top five body-counts for the #SPSFC so far. A whole fucking ton of people die, but it’s pretty bloodless. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

This story’s WTF curve was like an exponential sequence graph. It started slow and then went vertical, fast. And just when you think there’s no way you’re ever going to understand what’s going on, that’s when Griffard yanks the tablecloth away and not only does everything on the table remain more or less upright and untouched, the tablecloth turns into a flock of pigeons that fly out of a possible now I actually look at this properly, I realise I’m just reading out the feedback I got from the WTF-o-meter. And I’m okay with that.

My Final Verdict

A really enjoyable read, even if we’re left lacking a little bit of closure on some of the plot threads – that’s why it’s part one of a series. This one gets four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


The Threat Below: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Team Space Lasagna’s Week 8 reading round threw The Threat Below, first book of the Brathius Legacy series, by J. S. Latshaw, to the literary wolves next.

The opening chapters of this book will either put you off or draw you in, I think. In my case, I was drawn in. And I wasn’t expecting to be! The style of storytelling and characterisation somehow reminded me of Jane Eyre, with a dash of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and all of it taking place on top of a mountain like if the soccer team from Alive had just stayed up there and built a village and leaned into the class divide for like three hundred years. And if that has either put you off or drawn you in, then I guess I’ve accurately summarised what the start of this story was like.

But yeah, I really quite enjoyed it and found that I liked the characters and cared about their strange, vaguely unsettling little lives. The use of Latin, starting with the labelling of the Before Times people as the Apriori, was very neat. It gave a sort of intellectual timelessness to the setting, which made sense given the way society had been divided into the upper-class Cognates (the intellectuals) and the essentially slave-class Veritas (the muscle). And no, that doesn’t go the way you’re thinking and it’s actually really well thought-out and constructed. The Latin also subconsciously planted the idea that modern civilisation as we know it is a fleeting and doomed thing, and that this is what the future holds. Full circle. Kind of. It’s weird. And it gets weirder.


“I’d rather something else, but this had to be.”

– hilarious yet very meaningful Brathius family motto

So I was drawn in, and with every new chapter came a new and slightly disturbing piece of information, all nicely woven into an almost joyously tropey “sheltered princess forbidden love set against backdrop of post-apocalyptic world gone mad” story. We find out that the average lifespan is little over forty years. We are left uncertain as to whether “ultralions” and “ultrabears” are terrifying new genetic hybrid monsters or something else (I won’t spoil it but it’s fucking great). We’re introduced to this broken-arse mountaintop community living in fear behind a log wall and weird mist-ring, telling stories about the horrors that destroyed the word that was.

And then of course our protagonists go down there because that’s the story. By that stage, I was already invested. I cared about Ice and Ad, and even (God help me) Rainy towards the final act. That’ll fucking teach me, I guess.

But yeah, it was a good read! I was not expecting any of what happened, and that’s super cool. When (again, not to spoil but) you start seeing point of view sections from characters you would not have expected to get any kind of point of view, it gets interesting. And then it continues to get more and more interesting from then on. And, as a brief aside, “mountain madness” (the Threat Below cannot get to the people on the mountaintop because of the lack of oxygen, that’s all you need to know) is the best name for altitude sickness ever. I’m going to call it that from now on, although admittedly my day-to-day life does not typically include much mountain climbing so it’s going to be an effort to slip it into conversations.


“In order to survive, you may someday be forced to take the form of a worm. But at least try to be an eagle first.”

– this book is very quotable

I had my doubts. When I found out the mountaintop folks didn’t even know what a hammer was, I had to wonder how they’d managed to last three hundred years. When the story seems to Shyamalan on us at the 45% mark, I groaned a little but kept reading. When Adorane desperately needed to get his head pulled off and shoved up his arse to symbolise the way he lived, but that didn’t happen, I clenched my teeth and fantasised about it until the end of the page, and then the next, and then the next. Sometimes you just have to do that, okay? It’s fine.

The love triangle was silly but oddly compelling, and at least there wasn’t a clear OH MY FUCKING GOD ARE YOU BLIND YOU DEFINITELY NEED TO GO WITH THAT ONE in there. I mean, like most love triangles the answer was “feed the male / males into a wood chipper and just go off and be awesome,” but while the uncertainty existed it was at least readable uncertainty. What was even more uncertain was whether that kiss that happened was actually a fuck, and I guess we can debate that until the next book and the arrival of the baby because it was definitely a fuck. But whatever.

Now, following the not-exactly-Shyamalan (or Shyamalanalike) at 45%, by the 70% mark this book kind of becomes fucking amazing, and the whole backstory and setting falls into place. This, of course, sets us up for a heartbreaking ending I really should have been ready for but wasn’t. It was gut-wrenching, but at the same time strangely liberating. I have to know more! Fortunately, there is more.

Sex-o-meter

Well like I said, there was a kiss in it that I think a case can definitely be made for actually being a fuck, but aside from that there was a bit of teenage canoodling and a bit of fun non-human “ah, this is the thing we call the mating grapple” style clinical deconstruction. I’ll give this a “mountain madness” out of a possible “ocean madness … aqua dementia … the deep-down crazies … the wet willies … the screaming moist…”

Gore-o-meter

Considering this is a post-apocalyptic survivor-story featuring biogen-hybrid killing-machine beasties that have wiped out most of humanity, there wasn’t a huge amount of gore in here. Just enough, really. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for The Threat Below.

WTF-o-meter

Look, I said the same thing during Waterworld and I’ll say it here. Three hundred years is not long enough for sharks to have gotten bigger. They’ve been pretty much the same for a decent chunk of a quarter-billion, they’re not about to change now. But I’m just saying that because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to put it. This was a deliciously WTFfy story and I really enjoyed it. At every turn, the reader will at once think they know what’s happening but also know there’s more to it. Frequently, when I read a story and feel this way, I know I’m going to be disappointed and there will turn out not to be anything going on under the surface, so I’ll have to make shit up. Not so this time! I’ll give this a furrythief out of a possible ultrabear. If you know, you know.

My Final Verdict

This story was actually amazing, but you do have to be drawn in by the small-scale and slow-burn social / personal stuff at the start, because it takes a while for that pay-off. It was different enough not to be boring, and even though it had a lot of clichés in there, it was self-aware and showed some solid chops. Also, since I already referenced Futurama, I’m with Bender. Kill all humans. For fuck’s sake. Four stars!


The Binding Tempest: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up for the #SPSFC we have The Binding Tempest, first book of The Luminance Saga, by Steven Rudy. For the purposes of this contest, let’s agree that it was sci-fi but I’ll go into more detail below.

I felt for this book, I really did. I identified with it. This book … this book is me. Complete with the arguably unnecessary padding. More of us to love, that’s the justification.

There’s more of us to love.

Okay, this started weird, so let’s get into it. The Binding Tempest is not a science-fiction story, but then it’s not a fantasy story either. It’s kind of a steampunk outing but that’s just because of the New World and Revolutionary War theme, not to mention the horses and guns and zeppelins. Don’t be misled by the horses and guns and zeppelins, as the old Aztec saying goes. They exist only to lead you into strange rooms where men with odd facial hair

This is not getting any less weird. Sorry. I blame the Aztecs. My point is, this is a distinctly genre nonbinary story and I love that. It’s inspiring. When I read a book and it makes me want to get back to my own writing, it’s either because the book is terrible (this wasn’t) or because the book reminds me of why I love to read, and love to write. This was that.

So, there was magic and early industrial stuff as well as high energy weapons and portals and automatons. Awesome! There were different lands and histories and relics and politics and the whole tapestry was so incredibly rich. And the maps! I loved them. Extra credit for the maps, I want an A3 glossy print edition of this book just for the maps, the Kindle really didn’t do them justice (who zooms? Not me).

There were a couple of great characters in it. Qudin, from the moment he first does his quantum magic thing and bleeds from the ears, absolutely charmed me. The setup of his backstory with the Sagean Emperor felt a little bit like Szeth in the Stormlight books by Sanderson, but so what? Tali, and her magic pressure-blowouts, well she’s just purely epic. Loved it. And Ellaria Moonstone, aka Ms. Moonstone, is amazing (in fact compared to her, most of the other characters were a bit run-of-the-mill and she could have been edited into being the most central, perhaps even lone, point of view). And she’s in her late fifties! Mature female protagonists, represent.

So what was the problem?

Okay, so I have to say there was a bit of clumsy language throughout, that made it difficult to engage with. The story had a lot of exposition and description, and you have to combine that with readability or it’s going to be really obvious there’s pages and pages of exposition and description. Take it from a known waffler. It’s nothing a round of good hard editing couldn’t improve, but this is a very big and very dense book so said edit would be a large undertaking. The story needs the exposition, because ultimately this book is an exploration of a world and its history set against the backdrop of a motley hero group on a quest, rather than the other way around. But that means a lot of it needs to be stripped and cut down and washed out.

I am a big fan of the Massive Worldbuilding Infodump metagenre, so keep in mind that I suspect my tolerance will be higher than average. This book is a very deep, very loving tour of a world that obviously took a ton of creative effort. Our heroes seem to do a lot of treasure hunting and digging up of old knowledge, which to me was quite enjoyable to read for its own sake – but it does tend to leave the overall plot feeling messy and difficult to quantify. The titular Binding Tempest is the result of the Quantum Man and the Sagean fighting, which generated the power to unleash the Wrythen, and I think that’s what they were trying to do something about? Considering that the action keeps clipping along, it is at once busy and aimless. Also it’s a part one, so the ultimate story arc is incomplete anyway.

I had a smile at the Hex-like computer and I definitely enjoyed the big old guard robot thing towards the end, that was when it really started to feel like a science fiction story (the epilogue was almost entirely sci-fi) but like I say – I don’t believe in stories having to be one thing or another. Stories don’t work that way. Sorting machines do.

After all the build-up, the final showdown and revelations seemed strange and abrupt. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a symptom of the Massive Worldbuilding Infodump metagenre. Overall, I quite enjoyed this but I think maybe the best way to tell the story would be to just have the characters exist in that world, and let the reader know the author is intimately familiar with it rather than attempting to upload the same level of familiarity to the reader. That will happen organically over time and (I hope) many books.

Sex-o-meter

This, again, wasn’t that sort of story. Stop trying to have sex with me, we’re in the middle of a deep dive through an entire science fiction / fantasy atlas, history book and encyclopaedia here! Goodness, there’s a time and a place, okay? Anyway yeah, you get the point. The Binding Tempest gets an atlas, a history book and an encyclopaedia out of a possible one sexual intercourse.

Gore-o-meter

There was some good action, some thrilling and violent wolverack attacks (loved the critters in this book!), some blood and fighting. But overall there wasn’t much more gore than there was sex. It was fine, one flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

A rich, heavy vein of WTF runs through this story, as it should when we’re talking a genre-defying spray of unconstrained creative juicery. Most of the WTF is explained, of course, so TF is quite solidly quantified by the time we’ve explored Rudy’s impressive world. We know exactly WTF TF is all about, if we’ve paid attention while TF is being outlined for us. So stop asking. The WTF-o-meter gives this a Spearpoint / Godscraper out of a possible Dark Tower.

My Final Verdict

I can only admire the scope and ambition of this story, and reiterate how great the maps and illustrations were. Ultimately there was just so much worldbuilding and exposition to fit into the story, the story itself got lost in the woods. And that’s saying something, coming from me! Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Earthweeds: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week also brought me into the strange world of Earthweeds, first book of the Sons of Neptune series, by Rod Little.

This book was a lot, so let’s get started.

We begin our adventure up in a forested mountain national parky type area, where brothers Sam and Shane are enjoying a hiking / camping vacation to escape their woes for a time. Things go awry when they find a man who has committed suicide by gunshot sitting dead against a tree. He’s left a suicide note in his other hand that really got me intrigued, even if the couple of lines of Sam’s and Shane’s dialogue immediately following said note over-explained it all and kind of spoiled the effect. Less is more, people!

Anyway. Sam, who is six feet one inch tall and has been ever since he was a kid in high school when it was weird but isn’t so weird now he’s a college freshman, and his older brother Shane who is five feet eleven and more athletic, are distressed by the discovery of the dead body and return to town – and that’s where everything starts to go really crazy.

I admit, at the outset I got a bit of a Supernatural vibe from the two brothers, but that was only because one of them was named Sam and was quite tall (6’1″, as stressed a couple of times in the opening chapters) and his older brother is less tall but a bit of a tough guy who says “awesome” and calls his car “sweetheart” and doesn’t let Sammy drive it and their parents are dead. But these moderately amusing similarities took a back seat, if you will, to the fact that Sam can also summon electricity from his hands.

Why do we learn that Sam is a prematurely 6’1″ freakazoid before we find out about the lightning hands? One of life’s mysteries. And speaking of one of life’s mysteries, Sam and Shane are about to get all the rest of life’s mysteries thrown in their faces, one and two at a time, some of them wrapped in enigmas and some of them just damp and balls-out naked, so strap the fuck in.

The result is a highly entertaining, action-packed, twist-and-turn-filled adventure of a truly boggling scope and intensity. I may make light, but I was genuinely entertained and who can really ask for more than that? There were legitimately creepy moments (like the suicide and the things in the basement) and interesting premonitions (a narrator telling us what’s to come) and a whole lot of craziness (too much to do parenthetical justice to) folded into an apocalyptic monster thriller that keeps the beats coming.

We have a horde of flesh-eating lizards. We have monster spiders. We have a band of heavily-armed doomsday preppers and some creepy scientist-types. We have a guy who communicates with animals. We have electric powers. We have flying saucers from Neptune (this might constitute a spoiler but come on, look at the name of the series and try to keep your eye on the ball here). We have a lot. And this is just the beginning!

A few things didn’t add up, but they were mostly little things. The way a … certain event … occurred “over a millennium ago” and yet predated the dino-killer asteroid is one of those things that’s technically true but still sounds odd. It took them way too long to realise putting on Tina’s perfume was a good solution to the scent issue they were facing, rendering them “invisible” to the lizards. And once they did figure it out, it stopped being a plot point shortly afterwards. There was comedy gold to be dredged out of that … but I get it. There was too much else going on, no time to stop to pick up loose nuggets. I also didn’t get why words like Earth and Neptune were part of the lexicon when their etymology … gah, never mind. There’s a few little nits to pick but they’re not a big deal. What’s the odd nit when we have so much going on?

Sex-o-meter

There’s a lot of lingering and insistent description of the … three? … female characters, two of whom need to be rescued from a doom prepper rape cage at the start, but there’s no actual rape and not really any sex. It’s all about the action, not the action, you know? It’s kind of charming in its own way. One perfectly normal attractive step-sibling who just does normal stuff out of a possible set of attractive step-sibling triplets who get themselves trapped in implausible sexually vulnerable positions all the time because the plot demands it.

Gore-o-meter

Y’know, for a violent apocalyptic horror action story with killer lizards, there’s surprisingly little gore. A bunch of people and a whole fuck-ton of lizards get killed in an assortment of ways, some of them reasonably bloody, but we can’t get the gore-o-meter to go above two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five no matter how hard we whack it.

WTF-o-meter

Overall this book was an amazing, dizzying festival of WTFery. What a trip. At every point Little had a chance to say “this is it, this is what the story’s about, let’s continue,” Little instead said “fuck it, that happened, now something even more balls-to-the-wall crazy is going to happen.” I don’t know if the WTF-o-meter could handle the rest of the books in this series. As it is, it’s giving Earthweeds a Percy Jackson out of a possible Samuel L Jackson. I think … I think you broke it. Yep, it’s broken. Well that’s not going to be cheap.

My Final Verdict

The words Earthians from the Earthian Empire moved to Earthus should be absolutely stupid … but I really like it. And I don’t know why. I’m sitting here covered in smoking pieces of WTF-o-meter, and I don’t know why. What a wild ride. Lot of fun. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Isoldesse: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Up next was Isoldesse, of the Aevo Compendium series book 1, by Kimberly Grymes.

Banna idir dufiur et gohdeo … hey, I think I know this one. Something about there being a frog in my bidet, isn’t it?

I kid. I really enjoyed the uncompromising, deep-end plunge that Isoldesse pushes on the reader right from page one. It made me feel like one of the characters, confused and lost and overwhelmed. And at least we get a glossary! Yeah, there was a little world-by-world glossary of terms at the start of the book, so we have a little more information than the protagonists, but it is just enough to keep our heads above water. And, like I mentioned, the quasi-incantations of the sci-fi space magic were delightfully fantastical and reminded me of John Carter of Mars.

Yes, this story opens hard, with a lot of study material by way of an intro, and overall the narrative read like a science-fantasy in the John Carter or even Flash Gordon style. High fantasy with planets instead of ye olde realms, and while these may all add up to a problem for some readers, I liked it.

That being said, I did very nearly hurl my Kindle across the room early on – and I only didn’t because it was a pretty expensive little doodad. See, each world being studied for the Aevo Compendium (which I consistently failed to imagine as anything but Megadodo Publications, one of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, and their renowned guide for hitchhikers) is divided into four regions and a researching agent – well, look:

Spiaire – (spy-ir) A Sendarian who lives a double life on an alien world during an Aevo Compendium trial. There are four total Spiaires assigned to four different regions of whatever world is undergoing observation. A Spiaire’s job is to befriend the subjects without revealing their true identity and prepare the subjects for extraction to Priomh.

Okay, so the “four different regions” of Earth were Florida, California, the Midwest, and “north” – and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t talking about beyond-the-US north. I decided this was a hilarious surreal joke of some sort, and laughed rather than angry-purchasing a paperback just so I could throw it into the Gulf of Finland. Well played! But seriously, the rest of the planet exists, y’all.

Anyway, from this rocky but endearing start, I found myself rapidly overtaken by events and was left with a persistent feeling that I was reading a young adult drama like Beverly Hills 90210 but with some characters randomly swapped out for alien researchers and others swapped out maybe for some opposing alien group that’s hunting the researchers, and one of the humans is bonded with an alien ghost in a crystal and also the aliens seemed to have alien parents / handlers? I was quickly lost, but like Darci and Gemma and Meegan and Kenna (I’m afraid their names and descriptions made them all a teensy bit interchangeable to me) I was dragged along from one scene to the next and ultimately it was rather enjoyable even though it gave me a mild arrhythmia.

Through it all, I was able to focus on a couple of things. First, the Beast was an utterly disgusting character and the only implausible thing about him was that he was somehow employed by the Aevo Compendium people. There’s more to his story but frankly the fact that he wasn’t shot in the face and buried out back somewhere to enrich Priomh’s biosphere before the book even began was a real danger to my suspension of disbelief. Also, not to spoil things, but towards the very end of the book we find out that he sports a man-bun (it is mentioned briefly around the halfway point but it’s easy to miss) and I’m going to be honest, the reader deserves to know this a lot sooner. Like, a lot sooner. I’m just saying.

Other highlights included drunk Ally calling Xander a poopy-head, the Beast and his sudden but inevitable betrayal, and the moment I found out basically an entire alien species (or at least the females thereof) were redheads. That’s almost certainly someone’s idea of fun, but it’s not great when you’re trying to tell characters apart and hair colour seems to be the main characteristic mentioned each time.

Anyway, it was great. Let’s see what the meters have to say about it all.

Sex-o-meter

A chaste and thoroughly decent outing, Isoldesse had a few traces of leery nastiness and one genteel curtain-drop to cover a hypothetical hour-long human-on-alien boinkfest. I’ll give it an “isn’t that technically bestiality?” out of a possible “oh boy, that’s definitely bestiality, get that sheep out of here and why do you have a man-bun you’re just the worst” on the ol’ sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one. There wasn’t much gore or violence, although the story didn’t want for action. Nicely balanced.

WTF-o-meter

Like I said, this story had some excellent surreality and a colourful Flash Gordon aesthetic and John Carter system of high-tech space magic. The absolute relentless speed at which life comes at Julianna and Prue and Rian and Sabine (and Nick and Matthew and Liam and Ben…) adds a whole new level of enjoyment to this highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story.

My Final Verdict

Well now look, I just said “highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story,” so I can hardly do better than that here, can I? Isoldesse is Grymes’s debut novel and may she write many more! It was never boring, it showed a butt-ton of creative prowess and introduced us to a very complex series of worlds. Three stars! Thanks for a fun read.


Children of Vale: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


The next book on my #SPSFC list was Children of Vale, by D. A. Anderson.

Reading this book was like having sex right down in the back corner of a Sean Connery video library. Yes, it’s fucking close to Zardoz. But that’s a good thing! No wait, hear me out. Come baaack…

Look, it really was just nailed into my head the moment our protagonist, Tyana, is born in a Matrixian artificial womb field and then spat out of a giant Goddess-head into a compellingly agendered future world where advanced and enlightened people (living in a city with another big giant carved head motif) are struggling with their own stagnation and the incursions of “barbarians” outside. It just immediately struck me as a kind of homage, and that’s actually part of why I liked it all so much.

The story itself is fascinating, as we follow Tyana’s point of view literally from before birth and learn – as she does – about the strange world she lives in.

Tyana’s culture is divided into castes, from the lowly worker-class Artificers to the holy order of the Vestals. Each person is assigned a caste on a genetic level, and it is expressed in the colour of her hair. Tyana is a rare dual-class  anomaly – and unlike various other combinations that have popped out in the past, she is a blend of two castes that has never before occurred.

What follows is an exploration of the concepts of acceptance, respect, tradition, tribalism and one’s place in a world that abhors the not-readily-categorisable. And really a very interesting one. Each caste among the androgynous, female-pronoun-adopting higher race is given strengths and weaknesses – blessings and burdens, gifts and sins – but it swiftly becomes clear that not all burdens are equal. And not all sins are necessarily evil. And that some practices have been set in place entirely as a means of controlling a potentially dangerous population.

This was a philosophy that … definitely resonated with me.


“Our burden is to work. If we don’t, our muse – our madness, as she puts it – will take over. The work is meant to stave that off, to keep us busy and distracted.”


As Tyana learns more about her world and the shaky foundations on which it is built, her surroundings and her dreams become steadily more disturbing. There’s enough metaphor and symbolism in it to make the most coked-up, mushroom-addled Zardoz analyst throw away his red mankini, put some pants on and take a good long look at himself in the mirror. Presumably for the first time since he put on the mankini. But I digress. And I don’t know why. Stop me next time, I have regrets.

Tyana’s dream of a bleached and homogenised humanity, drained and safe, is unsettling to read. The action and events taking place in the narrative ultimately fail to live up to the imagery occurring on the higher plane of Vale’s and Thea’s ideological battleground … but isn’t that so often the way, with dreams?

This story combines fascinating sci-fi visuals and worlds with a delightful surreal aesthetic, and a compelling series of moral and sociological questions that really stayed with me after reading. It drew me in, and it kept me turning the pages as Anderson revealed the world a little bit at a time, in all its complex and often disturbing glory. Its solid sci-fi world and plot will appeal to some, while its out-there premise and artistry will appeal to others. It was all rather seamless and well-structured as far as I’m concerned, only a couple of little things really jumping off the page and yanking my moustache.

I loved the way the Artificers were introduced and discussed, the almost literal morlocks in this weird hypnopunk future, and the way they studied and synthesised the hallowed goddess-goo to the ultimate conclusion (which I won’t spoil, but it was very cool). Creativity and industry live on, even among a perfect theocratic utopia someone needs to keep the plumbing operational, and woe betide the theocrats when those poor grubby fucks finally look up from their labour and go “hang on.”

There was a throw-away reference to a “warp-capable” ship right at the very end, when the rest of the discussion of space travel had been either kept interestingly vague, or else seemed to use different terminology altogether. This abrupt bounce to (forgivable in its ubiquity) Star Trek lingo was jarring, but since it was basically the end of the story by that point it was easy enough to let it slide. Still, odd. But honestly, that was it.

Sex-o-meter

We’re confronted with a swift and furtive bit of androgynous self-touchy – oh, the wicked burdens of those pallid, slender Vestal hands! – but this is a pretty cerebral and asexual affair. And that’s fine. The sex-o-meter is detecting trace elements of whatever was going on in Zardoz, but not enough for me to give Children of Vale more than one-tenth of a whatever was going on in Zardoz out of a possible whatever was going on in Zardoz.

Gore-o-meter

There’s plenty of Warrior-caste violence and fight scenes, some pitched battles, the strange gryphons and the brutality with which the Artificers are treated, but all in all it’s fairly bloodless. Unless you count the ichor and the assorted black and white fluids of the Vale and Thea dreamscapes. And I don’t. And neither does the gore-o-meter. So there. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Downright psychedelic, this one. Really cool, almost pure high-grade WTF from cover to cover. Children of Vale gets a great big bowl of slimy black ichor dribbling out of the face-holes of a tormented Vestal godpuppet out of a possible … I don’t even know what this thing is trying to show me. The same thing only a slightly larger bowl? Yeah. Yeah, that’s what it is.

My Final Verdict

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, a really artistic piece of work that left me feeling thoughtful and slightly detached for some time afterwards. Four stars for Children of Vale.


The Dinosaur Four: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up on Team Space Lasagna’s plate is The Dinosaur Four, by Geoff Jones.

For some hilarious reason this book was misattributed as “time travel dinosaur erotica” among the SPSFC reviewers and as such we have all been looking forward to reading it. As it happens, we were right to be anticipating it – but not because it was a titillating carnal romp through the Cretaceous era. I mean, what would that even be like? Maybe Jones can take up his pen and get to work on that, because apparently reviewers be horny.

But no. What we got was goddamn brilliant and make no mistake, I was far happier that the leprous hadrosaurs didn’t fuck anyone.

What am I talking about and why am I still making it weird?

The Dinosaur Four opens in the Daily Edition Café where Lisa, the owner, is soliloquising about taxes and liquor licenses and the absurdity of being allowed to sell alcohol before you can drink it. The barista, Beth, flirts briefly with a delivery man named William and makes reference to his large package. Please keep in mind, at this point I still thought I was reading erotica so I had a really solid idea of where this was heading. The only question in my mind was whether William was a Chuck-Tinglian T-Rex delivery man with abs for days, or Beth was going to turn out to be a saucy Madame Vastra type. Or both, to the lyrical but total detriment of the protagonist’s ass.

Anyway, that didn’t happen.

The café, along with a fun little crowd of positively Stephen-King-worthy employees and customers, is abruptly transported to the distant past where they all get absolutely fucking bodied by dinosaurs (not in that way) for a couple of hundred pages.

It’s fucking glorious.

I was, as I said, immediately reminded of Stephen King – specifically The Mist, The Langoliers, and other neatly contained dramas. My initial thought was that maybe King would make more compelling or grimy characters more instantly identifiable and distinctive (Tim remained something of a nonentity for a while but – and this is the great bit – I’m pretty sure he was meant to), but there’s no shame in being out-grimy-charactered by Stephen King. However, as I read on, I realised that Jones had actually just gone a more slow-burn and subtle road with his protagonists. They may not have been as gross, but they were all just as distinctive and – if anything – more relatable, making everything that much more horrific.

I can’t say much more without spoiling various plot points and revelations, so I won’t – except to say that Lisa could probably have remembered and mentioned certain things a bit sooner and more readily than she did, and to wonder whether I missed a part that explained how “invisibility cloak” became “time travel” – was the former just a cover and I just missed the discarding of said cover? Anyway, read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

The characters were really great. Don’t be discouraged by the take-off – once they’re airborne, they really soar. Patricia is a giant Karen, Callie and Hank are a complete goddamn train wreck, and Al … Jesus Christ, Al. But for me, perhaps my favourite part of the story was just when you start thinking things are going to settle down for the Act III coast, and one of the characters … how to put this? They give their little group a name and it’s not the name of the book and you realise things are about to get so much worse.

Very good. Very, very good.

Sex-o-meter

For all the sweet-to-gross spectrum of human interpersonal relations taking place in this story, the horniest thing in it was the triceratops. Am I right? *goes up for high five and is left hanging, and deservedly so*. Fuck it. I guess my point is there wasn’t really any sex in this. Two desperately sad and awkward mother-shamed Al-boners from accidentally-on-purpose side-boob contact while hugging out of a possible five. I would have awarded it one desperately sad and awkward mother-shamed Al-boner from accidentally-on-purpose side-boob contact while hugging, but I just remembered that the T-Rex does in fact eat a giant bag of ticks, so there’s that. And no, that wasn’t a typo.

Gore-o-meter

Amazing. No notes. Four and a half flesh-gobbets out of five. I’m still giving us a final half-gobbet to fill out if an absolute fucking bloodbath crosses my Kindle because recalibrating the gore-o-meter isn’t cheap and I’m doing these reviews for free, but something tells me we’re not going to get much more gory than this one.

WTF-o-meter

This is a time travel adventure with a solid dose of causality and timeline-crossing and all of that. It would be weird if it didn’t register on the WTF-o-meter. One thing I was really interested in at the start of the story was how gross and diseased the dinosaurs were, and for a while I wondered if that was a plot point that was going to end up being significant. But I think in the end it just turned out to be a gritty, realistic look at how fucking disgusting giant feathery lizards would actually be, with an emphasis on the stuff we tend to sanitise out of our dinosaur lore. Jones is clearly an enthusiast and he’s done his research. I give The Dinosaur Four an Al’s mother out of a possible Toomey’s father (and that’s not as minor a reading as you might think).

My Final Verdict

Glorious. Just fantastic. I have no more words. Okay I lied; five stars.


The Elcy Protocol: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week for SPSFC I also reviewed The Elcy Protocol, by Bave Grozdanov.

This here book is a real chonker. I was thrown by the fact that I was working with a Kindle e-book, and it seemed to be taking forever to get anywhere. But that was just because the book had so many pages. Which was fine, because they were quality pages and I admire a thick juicy slab of bookmeat even if in this case it was conceptual meat on account of it being electronic. Plus, I was drawn in by the charming premise and fun characters, so I didn’t notice the (semi-illusory) drag until I was hooked. Great opening.

Yes, this story has an excellent premise and a really interesting protagonist, namely the erstwhile Elcy – formerly the rugged, almost literally loose cannon battleship Light Seeker, an old AI monster that retired from the seemingly perpetual war of Grozdanov’s narrative and was downloaded into an artificial biomech human body so she could look after the son of her former Captain. Some decades later, said child is now a grumpy old man and Elcy returns to active service – as a permanently skinny young adult human female this time – by way of cadet boot camp.

See what I mean about the opening and premise?

I was far more interested in seeing Elcy interact with her “fellow” humans than I was in reading about her previous incarnation as a battleship, and as the narrative skipped back and forth a little jarringly between past and present storylines, it got a bit annoying. Especially since the jumps back and forth felt designed to tantalise and frustrate (and look, for all I know they were, and that was well done). The date-stamp on each part was useful but difficult to keep track of in detail, and with the addition of straight-up segments of redacted memory, it became even more fragmented and strange.

However, all of this gradually (over an extended exploration-sequence; like I said, this was a hefty boi of a book) begins to fall into place and the secrets and restricted memories are unwrapped in a really interesting way. The ultimate point of the whole thing was almost an afterthought, though – almost a McGuffin but not even that big a deal – and I wonder if it’s going to be explored in further stories because it didn’t quite make an effective conclusion to this one.

Now, I’m one of those weird readers who don’t really care about that sort of thing, as long as the setting is good. And I’m not saying the plot arcs and endings weren’t there, or weren’t up to snuff. Another reader might be able to pick them out and appreciate them more. They just didn’t resonate with me in such a way as to justify the length of the journey. But the journey, for me, was really the point. I was interested enough in Elcy as a character, and in her interactions with humans, and in the backdrop of this weird Starship Troopers[1] forever-war version of humanity’s future, to such an extent that I didn’t really care about the narrative’s climax being arguably not-quite-explosive.

At one point Elcy reflects on humanity making contact with a third alien species (they already know two), and how the immediate result would be a third war front getting set into place. That was fascinating for what it said about that human civilisation, as well as the fact that – well, yeah, this is a battleship talking. Of course that would be her first move. And yet, Elcy herself doesn’t seem aggressive, despite her admittedly aggressive responses in a lot of situations.

The interstellar empire of humanity, even at the time when Elcy was a battleship, numbered “two quintillion people” and was at war with two separate alien civilisations. I was resigned, by halfway through the book, to never finding out what the Cassandrians or the Scuu actually were. Maybe that was the point. We may have been looking at the entire story through a keyhole, but it seemed like nobody made any effort, ever, to do anything but go to war with these alien races.

I was charmed by Elcy’s personality and behaviour. It read, to my completely inexperienced and non-clinical mind, like an examination of a neurodivergent personality forced to deal with normies. Her relationship with Sev was interesting but never really explored in a way I would have enjoyed seeing, as I was expecting Grozdanov to make some point about what a disastrous (or beneficial) guardian for a human child a battleship would be, and what it had done to Sev developmentally.

Overall the length of the book made it seem to drag when it didn’t (necessarily), but the only really noticeable part I felt was too long was the antagonist’s monologue at the end. Too many moving parts, built up over an admittedly impressive narrative, requiring too much explanation.

Fuck it, let’s go to the meters.

Sex-o-meter

No sex. Elcy is distilled down into the bio-synthetic body of a roughly teenage girl so as to provide a big sister figure to Sev, and then she just stays that way. The Elcy Protocol gets a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations out of a possible Bender Bending Rodriguez. If you have a thing for barefoot girls in sci-fi, you might coax a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations with a red forearm for no reason out of the sex-o-meter, but I don’t know why you’d bother abusing a delicate piece of scientific equipment for this.

Gore-o-meter

Not much gore either. There are space battles and a plentiful body-count, but not much in the way of up-close and personal. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

The Elcy Protocol scores well here, on account of the sheer Banksian fun of the AI spaceships and their different levels of interaction, as well as the funky surreal nature of the “third contact”, the cobalt symbols and the fractal what-have-yous. It was all very visually nice to read, and combined with the flashback structure and the concept of memory as military industrial complex property, it made for a decidedly strange story. The WTF-o-meter gives this book a pair of sandals lying on a table out of a possible Memory Restriction Imposed.

My Final Verdict

The nature of memory and reality, privacy and free will are all called into question in this story. The main plot, of exploration and revelation of an alien intelligence, is truly secondary to whatever was going on with Elcy and her place in society. Bittersweet ending, but for the twists and turns in this story there doesn’t seem any resolution, nothing that really presents itself as a climax or revelation. Three stars!

 


[1] The book, not the movie.


The View From Infinity Beach: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Our next SPSFC review is The View From Infinity Beach, by R. P. L. Johnson.

This story had a nicely gripping start, although I have to say the main reason I continued to angry-read the first few chapters was because of how obnoxious the young adults of Excalibur Station were. I just plain didn’t want Kade to be friends with any of them, but I’m coming to recognise this as a symptom of my own encroaching cantankerous-old-cuntness, rather than any flaw in the writing. On the contrary, the characters were well written and plotted.

Left to right: Nikki the popstar, John the resourceful nerd, Kade the only person who was brought up right, Lizzie the severely judgement impaired athlete-type, and Lawrence the rich braggart with a heart of gold (somewhere, occasionally; may be subject to backslides).
Look, I watched it with my kids, okay? And it’s not a 1:1 analogy, but … if you know, you know.

So, this interesting but annoying start was enough to get us to the main point of the story, which was that the asteroid belt mining company community were working on a hollow-asteroid habitat concept on an awe-inspiring scale, and the parasitic Earthbound “ruling class” were out to take it for themselves.

While the worldbuilding and sociopolitical setup (not to mention the strange asteroid at the focus of it all) is a little reminiscent of The Expanse, Johnson avoids too much of the unfortunately hard-to-avoid “Earther vs. Belter” similarities that come with the territory these days. I’d say that while it is very much its own thing, The View From Infinity Beach is also a sufficiently entertaining entry in the asteroid belt mining future sub-subgenre to appeal to people who enjoyed That Other Series That’s Everywhere.

Myself, I was already interested in this one because of the cover, and the nostalgia for Rendezvous With Rama that it kindled.

The action was nicely done, with some real menace and an excellent sense of what was at stake. Even if the main villain was somewhat overblown, one might also argue that it’s impossible to really overblow something like this. And it was very satisfying to read.

The interpersonal drama with the young characters was set up a little clumsily. Really, Lawrence shat me to tears (by the time he improved it was too late, I had already decided I was never going to like him) and the most annoying thing about him was that Lizzie seemed completely oblivious to it, and that kind of reflected poorly on the overall work. Not only did it come hazardously close to the “women always like jerks” involuntary-celibate mantra and cheap jock-at-school tropeyness (a tropeycal copypasta with incelery, if you will), but ultimately it didn’t have much bearing on the story or the characters so there was neither justification nor payoff. It was just antagonism for the sake of antagonism, when there was plenty of that coming from the actual antagonists. Not to mention the far more compelling relationship dynamic between John and the other kids.

But anyway, that was a minor thing.

I really enjoyed the built-in alteration to the laws of physics that came with the coriolis effect inside the space stations, and how it was written into the story’s action scenes. I don’t know enough about the actual laws of physics to say this is or is not how things would actually go in a spin-gravity habitat, but since I don’t know, I’m going to say it was fine and I liked it.

Aside from some occasional editorial issues (at one point a character was barraged with “a bullet of bullets”, which was actually quite amusing) and a bit of odd pacing and scene-changing (the first encounter at Kera and the ending of that sequence and the kids’ escape and return to Excalibur seemed to happen off-page, unless my Kindle flicked past it for some reason), the whole narrative was really nicely constructed and had an excellent, nicely relentless pace.

Sex-o-meter

We didn’t really get any sex in the story, and that’s fine – it was essentially a young adult adventure so aside from a bit of teen hormone drama and male gazery, there wasn’t anything full-on. And that made sense. Let’s award this one gym sock that could be crusty for entirely innocent (but still kind of gross) reasons out of a possible entire American Pie movie franchise with extra Stiflers.

Gore-o-meter

There’s a few firefights, an honest-to-goodness Ripley fight in an industrial mover suit, a bit of mob violence and collateral murderings, but all in all this isn’t really a gory one. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for The View From Infinity Beach.

WTF-o-meter

Not much WTF in this story either, like I say it was a nice take on the asteroid belt mining future concept and not one with a built-in WTF thread like some giants of the sub-subgenre. And it didn’t need one, since the solid science and human endeavour of it was the point, and more than made up for any lack. I’ll give this story a half-filled ammo clip of bullets out of a possible bullet of bullets on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

This was a fun read, all its issues were relatively minor and were definitely forgivable in light of the excellent concepts and engaging action. There was a classic wartime feel to the Molly Moore “mascot” that I  really dug, and the ending of the story and its overall message was honestly uplifting. Pure human gold. I’m giving it a solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Mindguard: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up we have Mindguard, by Andrei Cherascu.

I had fun reading this story, which was a very interesting and page-turning adventure with some compelling characters and fascinating sci-fi tech. Tamisa, highly-trained living-weapon soldier of the Interstellar Federation of Common Origin’s Enforcement Unit, was sufficiently reminiscent of a Legionary of Moros to tickle my nostalgia bone and enjoy reading about her struggles.

The story centres around a team of private security specialists – Bodyguards and Mindguards, for the physical and telepathic safety of the client – and their efforts to get a person carrying sensitive information through a gauntlet of hostile environments and a space-fascist-y government under the heel of a military wing long since gone rotten. Every side in the story has its own secrets and every motivation has its own complexities, and I was left wondering who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Ultimately, I suppose the lesson was that things are never that simple. And I like that.

Our characters’ journey takes us through one of the most dangerous “deserts” in the human interstellar empire – I really enjoyed the concept of lawless or otherwise contested regions of space being deserts, by the way. Telepathy and teleportation / portal use are relatively commonplace. Also there’s a planet (or part of a planet) of space lepers, which is great. No notes.

A few things didn’t make sense to me as I was reading. The uploaded-consciousness thing was cool and all, but if it was a new discovery how was it much of a carrot for Sheldon? He could have (and probably should have) just refused to take the mission, and waited for the technology to become common. He’d waited this long, what’s a little longer? Go public with the knowledge and wait for his turn. Still, I suppose it was tightly controlled and exclusive and – well, we needed the plot to happen. I also wasn’t sure what was going on with Tamisa’s phobia of her own beauty. Was it a veiled method of talking about how attractive she was, or was it a clever way of showing her mental damage after growing up on rape planet? Why not both?

Getting busted for shaving her head was kind of stupid, and the lesson (learn to embrace your advantages, in this case do the va-va-voom trope and be all beautiful and stuff) was a bit on the nose. I think her arc from victim and escapee from rape planet to relationship-haver with Villo with occasional head-smashing outbursts was more than enough without adding that additional facet to it. But fine. It’s there. Incidentally, I was convinced as soon as Villo turned up that he was definitely going to betray Tamisa by the end and they would have a fight and be evenly matched and predictable and then she would win by being unpredictable. I’m still not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed by what happened. Why not both?

The action ticked along nicely and there were enough twists and turns for it to be compelling. The chapter introduction-texts either added rich background or tantalising snippets of what was coming up in the story without spoiling what was happening, and I liked that. Thomas Anderson’s showdown with the Millers around the mid-point was fun and tense, marking the point of the story at which I really started to get invested and leaving me uncertain what was about to happen, and who I wanted it to happen to. Why not b– oh.

I was a little put off by the fact that all the female characters were described in great detail while the male characters (aside from Maclaine ‘Mac’ Ross and his bigness and tight shirts) were barely described at all. A notable exception being Horatio, who – well I still don’t know what he looked like, but oh boy, his problems have got problems, don’t they? That fuckin’ guy, man. Nicely written.

The finale, tying together the action and intrigue and motivations of the main players, revealing a very satisfying mystery and even tying the leper planet back into it, is top-notch. Maybe a little over-extended, but definitely nice. I was left wanting to see what our heroes and anti-heroes did next, and that’s never a bad thing.

Sex-o-meter

Aside from gross rape planet (I joke, but the ugly events and culture on Tamisa’s former homeworld are really only alluded to in order to provide a backdrop, it’s not all that explicit) and incidents thereon, there’s a couple of sex scenes and a bit of skin-crawling nastiness from Horatio but none of it’s particularly graphic. I’ll give it a single sexual-performance-enhancing body-modification and two-thirds of a deep-seated emotional instability out of a possible … uh, Horatio.

Gore-o-meter

We get some excellent fights, killings, and police brutality. People’s heads are reduced to barely-recognisable lumps after their attackers lose track of how many times they’ve bashed them with whatever, which is something I always look for in a beat-down. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Like I was saying, the reader is treated to some excellent sci-fi concepts and a lot of good world-building in this book. But I wouldn’t say there was much in the way of WTF to contend with. The Opus Caine was something of a WTF, and there were some great psychic moments, but I was rather expecting more of that sort of thing, in a story that seemed like the telepathy version of a bodyguard adventure. Even so, it was fine. I’ll give Mindguard a diving sideways in slow-motion shouting “NOOOOO” out of a possible doing all that only in your mind.

My Final Verdict

Three stars for Mindguard on the Goodreads / Amazon scale. Not much more to say, this was an enjoyable read with some great characters. Also Horatio was there.