Review: “And Shall Machines Surrender,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Pros: An unusual and delightful world
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s And Shall Machines Surrender reveals a delightfully strange world. Dr. Orfea Leung has arrived at the Shenzhen Dyson sphere, running from her past. She’s a little surprised at how easily the process goes, given how the citizens of Shenzhen tend to view outsiders. She even picks up a job as a surgeon who specializes in cybernetics. On the job she runs into Krissana Khongtip, an old friend who betrayed her. Both women are trying to hide that they used to work very violent jobs for the Alabaster Admiral of the Amaryllis fleet. Shenzhen is home to the Mandate, a society of AIs who broke free of humanity’s control. Krissana is a haruspex candidate, planned to merge with an AI. However, three haruspices commit simultaneous suicide, something that shouldn’t be possible. An AI named Seung Ngo sets Krissana and Orfea to investigate what’s happening. Unfortunately for them, they quickly get caught up in some very dangerous schemes.

I love the names of the AIs in this story. Names like Nataku Contemplates a Flight of Sparrows; Wonsul’s Exegesis; Benzaiten in Autumn. Some AIs go by they/them; others by more unusual pronouns. It’s treated as perfectly normal, which it should be since AIs have been around for a while now. The AIs are definitely not human, and this gradually becomes more clear and more of an issue. The depiction of artificial intelligences is fascinating. It’s also an integral part of the wider worldbuilding, since the AIs have various ways of influencing Shenzhen Sphere’s physicality.

Orfea and Krissana have an interesting relationship. They have feelings for each other, but in saving Orfea’s life Krissana caused her to be seen as a deserter by the Alabaster Admiral, ruining her life and causing her to flee for safety. There’s some lovely dom/sub mildly kinky lesbian sex in here. The women’s relationship is constantly in flux as events change around them, and I found myself caught up in wanting to know how it would work out.

The book covers a fair amount of ground. From AI attitudes about humans to extended fight sequences, there’s something here for almost everyone. I particularly love the schemes and machinations going on. I’d love to see more of this world, especially regarding the Alabaster Admiral, who seems like a fascinating character.

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Review: “Charred Roots,” Erik Kort, Lee French

Pros: This series continues to rock!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Erik Kort and Lee French wrote Charred Roots (The Greatest Sin Book 6). Seer Chavali and her friends work for the Fallen–they’ve all died and been brought back to life. All people in this fantasy world are born with a memory of being abandoned by their Creator for sinning, but everyone has a different idea of what this sin must have been, leading to many clashing takes on how best to live. In this volume, a “retired” Fallen (he has had his memories of the Fallen taken away from him) is in danger, and the Fallen take care of their own. Chavali and her team are dispatched to return his life to some semblance of stability. Colby, with whom Chavali is falling in love despite their obvious differences, is on her team. So is a newly-fledged Fallen and a couple other familiar faces. Chavali is not happy with how the Princess in charge put together and briefed her team, but for now their rightful leader Eldrack is still under arrest, so she has no choice but to go along with things. When the team arrives at their destination, they find a very messed-up city. There are far too few Guards to handle law enforcement, and there’s a surprisingly large amount of corruption. There are two gangs keeping the city under siege, and a chaotic, destructive cult as well. Then there are some mages out of Colby’s past who have an interest in his mysterious, intelligent horse companion, Karias. Chavali will have to spin her stories quickly if she wants to keep their retired friend alive and kicking!

Chavali is one of my favorite main characters ever. She’s a strong, imperfect woman. She is well-known for being “difficult,” but she has extremely strong moral boundaries–they’re just different from those of most of the people she spends her time with. She has such a strong personality, and she truly cares for her fellow Fallen. She’s also coming to care more about helping people just for the sake of helping–her character growth is a lovely, gradual arc throughout the series. I love the fact that when Chavali meets an old lover of Colby’s, the authors didn’t feel the need to make the two of them into catty rivals, which so many writers would do.

There’s a surprising touch of (cosmic) horror in the presence of a magical fungal infection in this volume. There’s magic, more information about who and what Karias is, city politics, warring gangs, and plenty more going on. I always love seeing how Chavali chooses to go about these things. She isn’t sneaky like two of her team. She isn’t a bull in a fight like Colby. She doesn’t have another friend’s magic. But she reads people like nobody’s business–both their body language and (if she touches their skin) their thoughts, and this leads to some fascinating approaches to things. As usual Chavali makes new allies and enemies as she goes, leading to all sorts of shenanigans.

The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the characters are all fascinating individuals, and there’s plenty of character development and action. I highly recommend reading this entire series!

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Review: “Null Set,” S.L. Huang

Pros: Fascinating premise and execution
Cons: Cliffhanger ending
Rating: 5 out of 5

S.L. Huang’s Null Set: A Cas Russell Novel is an excellent sequel to her Zero Sum Game. Both books are about Cas Russell, “a supernaturally mathematical retrieval specialist who [drinks] her way from one job to the next.” Thanks to teaming up with private investigator Arthur and his hacker friend Checker, she’s trying to fight crime. In particular, the group is going after human trafficker Pourdry, whose victims are children. But there’s no proof that Pourdry is related to any of the crimes, and it’s impossible to find the man himself. Also, ever since Cas and Arthur took down Pithica (which was using psychics and killers to force people into good behavior) the crime rate has gone up. By doing the “right thing” they’ve made everything worse. Cas becomes determined to find a one-size-fits-all solution to the crime in LA, and a piece of technology from a defunct corporation might just do the trick. It’s meant to counteract the brainwave-changing effects of groupthink, mob mentality, and peer pressure, which Cas hopes will free people who’ve been pushed into following crime syndicates and gangs. But isn’t this dangerously close to what Pithica was doing in the first place?

The real meat of this is the question of gray areas and what’s morally right or wrong. How is what Cas wants to do different from what Pithica wanted to do? Sure, she’s “just” freeing people from negative influences, but she’s still messing with their minds. And of course there’s the inevitable fact that something is bound to go wrong when you start messing with human minds. One of the things I love about these books is that there are no easy answers. From a certain point of view, the main characters are the bad guys. And yet, it isn’t that simple.

There’s another problem going on: Cas’s mind is coming apart at the seams. Dawna messed with her memories previously, and now her mysterious past is coming back, bit by bit. It’s causing Cas to black out at bad times. It’s also tearing her apart. This could very well kill her, and Cas can’t trust the mysterious man who has shown up and who says he can help her.

Rio is also back–the psychopathic quasi-friend of Cas’s–and he and Cas’s friends aren’t going to get along. Rio’s a danger to everyone, and he’s about to make LA even more dangerous for our heroes. I love Huang’s character-building. (Although even though Rio’s Asian, I keep mentally hearing his voice as a perfect Chris-Judge-as-Teal’c from Stargate.)

I still love Cas’s mathematical abilities and how she uses them. It’s so creative and delightful. It particularly makes for interesting action scenes.

I wish this volume hadn’t ended where it did. It feels like an emotional cliffhanger, and I just don’t enjoy cliffhangers. I do, however, plan to pick up the sequel when it comes out!

“You know, only you would assign yourself the problem ‘fight crime’ and then try to come up with a general solution.”

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Short Take: “Dear Laura,” Gemma Amor

Pros: Horrifying!
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Gemma Amor’s novella Dear Laura introduces us to a woman on a mission. When she was 14, her best friend Bobby got into a mysterious car and disappeared, never to be seen again. Now every year on her birthday, she gets a letter from a man who says he’ll give her clues to where Bobby’s body is buried if she trades him personal items. Like used underwear or a used toothbrush. His clues provide coordinates, but so far she hasn’t found anything. When she decides to finally go to the police, she discovers just how much power over her this man really has, and how close to her he is. She’s finally able to elude him for a number of years, but he ultimately returns. And now there’s one last clue to follow.

This story does get mildly bloody, and Laura’s despair is writ large on the page, which isn’t always easy to read (but hey, that’s horror). She’s understandably damaged, and this shows up in her personality in fascinating ways. Amor manages to find ways to make it believable that Laura doesn’t go to the authorities as time goes on, which was my biggest worry about this story. There are some questions we never get answers to, which is realistic, but difficult as a reader of course. It’s at least good to see that not all of Laura’s life is misery and fear.

This is a comparatively short work, but it’s intense and fascinating. I recommend it for horror fans.

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Review: “Wanderers,” Chuck Wendig

Pros: Spellbinding!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers: A Novel blew me away. 17-year-old Shana wakes up one morning to find that her 15-year-old sister, Nessie, has started walking off down the road for no apparent reason. Nessie’s eyes are blank, and any attempt to restrain her goes… badly. Soon she’s joined by more walkers–about one every two hours. Needles and knives won’t break the walkers’ skin, so they can’t be sedated, and blood and tissue samples can’t be taken. (But are they bulletproof? No one wants to find out.) The “flock” starts in Pennsylvania and heads west, state by state, growing all the while. Meanwhile, people like Shana join the flock as “shepherds,” people who tend to and watch out for their loved ones. The CDC comes in, and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a previously disgraced member of the CDC, is urged to help by Sadie Emeka. Sadie works for a company that has created a predictive machine intelligence called Black Swan, and Black Swan believes that Benji is needed. As the flock moves inexorably onward, all of America (and the world) is drawn into the question of what is going on. A pastor named Matthew Bird becomes a polarizing presence on the air waves. The president seems to vacillate depending on what the polls show at any given time. The president’s challenger, Ed Creel, takes advantage of people’s fear to whip the hysteria of white supremacy, igniting the fires beneath a particularly well-armed militia group. America has more to fear than the flock–much more–but as Benji’s about to learn, it’s all tied in together.

Full disclosure: I thought this book sounded cool when I heard about it, but the sheer hype over it worried me. How could anything live up to that? Also, I kept hearing that Wanderers was a real novel-of-our-times, touching on all the madness of the day, and, well, I prefer escapist fiction. But so many reviewers whom I trust said good things about the book, and I know Chuck is an excellent writer, so I gave in and grabbed a copy. And I’m so very glad that I did.

Biology had at its core a keen and singular horror that made all the bogeymen stuff as scary as a preschool playroom.

There are definitely some interesting moral quandaries in here. For instance, Benji was disgraced and forced to leave the CDC because he faked data against a company. But he did it because he could see that the company’s practices were headed in a very dire direction. There is no easy answer provided to this dilemma.

While it’s true that nearly every aspect of the dumpster fire that is currently raging is brought up and introduced in some way, Wendig doesn’t fall prey to the urge to sermonize. He just lets things speak for themselves. The police, for example, are called in early in the flock’s movements. Of course the police escalate things in unnecessary ways and cause the first real tragedy of the flock. When white supremacists start an uprising, there are police who join in and who obviously are white supremacists. A billionaire amusement park developer blows open some bat caves and ends up sickened by the bats. Pastor Matt tries to teach tolerance and love, explaining the Bible as metaphorical, only to end up manipulated into declaring the flock to be the “Devil’s Pilgrims” by his eagerness to make people happy and become a well-known and well-liked figure. Climate change gets drawn into the picture as well.

There are so many fascinating details to the flock. For instance, they’re traveling via roads, avoiding major highways and not going as-the-crow-flies, which seems to indicate some sort of intelligence to their actions. When an ex-cop named Marcy comes across the flock, it suddenly relieves the pain and confusion brought on by a head injury she had. (See, not all cops are depicted poorly. The book has much more to it than that.) She becomes one of the shepherds, and has some very interesting roles to play. The clues related to the flock come at the reader steadily–Wendig doesn’t play coy or try to draw things out overly far. I felt like I was constantly going, “oh my god!” as I read.

Dreams were not made on the internet; they were killed there. By mean, nasty little shits who were all looking to one-up each other.

Content note: slurs (not surprising when some of your characters are white supremacists), white supremacy, sex, animal harm, rape, and torture. I should note that this is one apocalyptic novel that does not use the apocalypse as an excuse to constantly depict women being raped, which I for one am grateful for.

There were two points in this book where I found myself crying for the characters. Things definitely get emotional. I should note that this book manages to avoid almost all of the standard scenes you see in apocalyptics, and the ones that do happen have good reasons for being there.

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and that’s saying something.

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Review: “Growing Things and Other Stories,” Paul Tremblay

Pros: Wonderful collection of stories!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Paul Tremblay presents us with a collection of short horror stories called Growing Things and Other Stories. I should note that there’s some mention of animal harm in a couple of the stories.

The title story, Growing Things, is an apocalyptic story in which two girls wait for their father to come home from a supply run as plants take over the world. His stories are rarely just one thing, however, and there are other things going on in that family. Where We All Will Be has people flocking to the ocean like moths to a flame–except for Zane, who isn’t feeling the mysterious pull at all. He goes, however, in an attempt to stay with his father and find his mother. It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks is an apocalyptic from the point of view of a young child. Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks is another apocalyptic, in which a mother tracks down her daughter (whom she is legally required to stay away from) as giant monsters attack the world. Once again we find that Tremblay’s tales tend to work on multiple levels, as this woman has some… issues.

[O]h shit, I wasn’t me again, and the me who wasn’t me did something, something wrong, but I don’t know what.

Something About Birds is utterly surreal and bizarre; not really my kind of story, but it was still oddly fascinating. The Teacher is also rather surreal–eight kids are put into a special class, and it seems to send them all ’round the twist as they’re made to watch some rather disturbing films. Notes for “The Barn in the Wild” is an interesting little found-journal story. A Haunted House Is a Wheel upon Which Some Are Broken is a choose-your-own-adventure story–this works great in ebook format, where you can just click on the links. I didn’t really grok The Thirteenth Temple, but I gather it refers back to one of Tremblay’s other books, so perhaps it would make more sense if I had read that first.

The Getaway is about four men fleeing a robbery-gone-wrong. Only, it seems to have gone more wrong than they think. The ending in particular really gripped me. Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport is also another crime/horror story, told as descriptions of nineteen photographs. It’s an interesting conceit, and it really works in this case.

___________ is a very odd story. It starts with a woman approaching a man on a beach and pretending to be his wife, and it just gets stranger from there! Very creepy! Our Town’s Monster is a weird little story about a swamp monster and its relationship with the nearby town. The Society of the Monsterhood is a very bizarre story about four teens and the monster they sort-of befriend. Again, a very odd tale, with an even stranger ending.

It Won’t Go Away is one of a couple of author-main-character stories. It involves a writer who goes to a reading and does something… unexpected. And how that affects other people who were there. Another story with an author as a main character is Notes from the Dog Walkers. It’s hard to imagine telling a story as notes left for a person by their dog walkers, but it works! One of the dog walkers starts getting a little too familiar. They poke around the house a lot more than they should, and start advising the author on their career.

The Ice Tower sees a bunch of ice climbers trying to scale a mysterious ice tower in Antarctica. This is the most Lovecraftian story in here. Her Red Right Hand is a Hellboy story! It’s a bit melancholy and sad, but very interesting. It introduces us to a little girl, Gemma, whose mother recently died and whose father seems to be going off the deep end.

I absolutely loved this collection. While there were some stories that didn’t hit me quite as hard as others, they’re all interesting and fascinating to read.

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Review: “Inspection,” Josh Malerman

Pros: So intense!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Josh Malerman’s Inspection: A Novel blew me away. We’re introduced to J, a boy who’s being raised in an isolated school for geniuses. He and his “brothers” are called the Alphabet Boys, and there were originally 26 of them, one for each letter of the alphabet. Two became “spoiled rotten” and were sent to the Corner–from which no one ever returns. There’s another, almost identical, school, only occupied by the Letter Girls. The two megalomaniacs who run the place (D.A.D. and M.O.M.) believe that distraction by the opposite sex keeps people from reaching their full potential, so they’re raising each group not just separate from the other, but with absolutely no knowledge that the opposite sex even exists! Thanks to a series of events that causes (the boy) J to question what he’s been told, and that causes (the girl) K to realize there’s a second school in the forest, J and K come into contact, and everything starts to come down around their ears.

The only teeny, tiny not-quite-negative that I have about the book is that there’s never any acknowledgement of the fact that some of the kids could turn out to be gay and totally upset the whole idea. But there are two reasons why I think the book’s treatment of this is okay. For one, the kids are only just starting to enter puberty, and don’t even know sex is a thing, so it’s easy to understand why they haven’t really thought about it yet. And for two, I fully believe that M.O.M. and D.A.D. are narrow-minded enough to not have taken the possibility into account. I have a feeling if this book went on for several years the possibility would have come up.

The schools are absolutely fascinating. Marilyn and Richard (M.O.M. and D.A.D.) have thought of (almost) everything. The children are told that if they stray too far from the school they could catch various diseases, such as Vees, Rotts, and Placasores. They’re inspected every morning for any trace of these diseases, ensuring that the children take them very seriously. Each school has its “author in residence” churning out books that reinforce the lessons of the Parenthood (the organization that’s running the whole thing). Marilyn and Richard have the kids conditioned to desire their attention and approval and to tell them everything. They even have games the kids play that condition them to tell the truth at all times. It’s incredibly imaginative.

There are a couple of occasions when J is being asked some very vital questions, where his answers could determine his fate, and he’s going through a lot in his mind. In most authors’ hands this would slow things down and drain away the tension, but somehow Malerman manages instead to increase the tension. There’s just this ongoing feeling of, oh god, J, hurry up and answer before they realize something’s wrong! This book is so utterly intense and tense. I was blown away by how riveted I felt. I definitely plan to read more by Malerman!

Content note: this book does get a bit bloody.

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Review: “The Haunting of Hill House,” Shirley Jackson

Pros: Holy hell this story sucked me in!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics) has Dr. Montague preparing to spend some time in the supposedly-haunted Hill House. He finds two people to come help him note what happens there (Theodora and Eleanor), plus a member of the family that owns the place stays with them (Luke). Eleanor had previously experienced a poltergeist-type incident when she was very young. Now, having cared for her ill mother for 11 years, she’s desperate to get away from it all for just a little while, and so she accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation. Right away we see that she’s a little off-balance: she spends her entire time on the drive up imagining various fantasy lives for herself, and when she arrives she incorporates pieces of those fantasies into what she tells the others of herself. Before long, strange things start happening, and Eleanor seems to be the focus of them.

Okay, so The Haunting of Hill House has been around for a long time, and is exceedingly popular. But I didn’t get around to reading it until now, so I’m going to review it just for fun. Normally older-style horror books aren’t entirely my thing; they tend to be a little slow and a little light on things actually happening. Somehow Jackson’s book managed to gradually build up the tension until I was practically vibrating. There is, of course, a question of how much of what’s going on is due to Eleanor. We know that there are things going on that the others, too, experience. But is this related to the poltergeist incident she dealt with when she was younger? Is she somehow influencing the house? Is it getting into her head because she’s the most vulnerable among them?

The character interactions make this book sing. Eleanor and Theo in particular have a quickly-shifting relationship. They at once grow close, seeing that they have much in common, but before long Theo is making snide comments to Eleanor and blaming her for ‘seeking the spotlight’ when manifestations center on her. Theo even thinks it’s Eleanor’s fault when she finds blood on her clothes. Eleanor does initially develop a sort of facile, brief crush on Luke, but quickly starts to see him as ‘uninteresting’. The woman who cares for the house and sets out the crew’s meals is fascinating, with a seeming inability to say anything other than her specific, rote phrases, with a single interesting exception.

All in all, this is a fascinating, unusual, tense ride. It’s still a little slower/lower-action than most modern horror readers expect, but it does so well with it!

“Nell?” Theodora looked up at her and smiled. “I really am sorry, you know,” she said.
I would like to see her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, “Don’t be silly.”

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Review: “Into the Black,” William Meikle

Pros: Lovecraftian horror with an occasionally whimsical flair
Cons: Slightly repetitive
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I seem to be on a roll with William Meikle books lately; they’re perfect for when I want horror, but not depressing. Into The Black: Tales of Lovecraftian Terror is a great collection of short stories in a Lovecraftian vein of cosmic horror.

There are some strong commonalities in many of these stories. Mysterious half-heard music is a recurring theme. Odd black egg-like things that divide repeatedly and cause havoc of one kind or another show up a lot. A tarry black substance (Shoggoth) that eats people does plenty of damage. Multiple old gods lay dreaming beneath the sea. People are compelled to dance to an entrancing rhythm. Maybe the weird unexplained black eggs show up and do their replication thing a little much, but there’s still plenty of variety to keep things fresh.

There’s a scientific experiment that goes terribly wrong. There’s mysterious life found under the ice on the Antarctic Shelf. In World War II, Mi-Go threaten to obliterate London and Berlin if the war isn’t ended. A man tries to recreate the music that’s in his head.

There are a couple of different time periods represented here. There’s a tale of Romans vs. Picts, one involving the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and even one that takes place after climate change has started wrecking the world.

There’s a bizarre alternate-earth King Arthur, “forty-ninth holder of name and title,” who has to protect Londinium from Saxon dirigibles. (Merlin keeps making “your mother” jokes at a portly and out-of-shape Sir Lancelot.) A Christmas Eve tale sees a mysterious infection that first attacks a reindeer.

These are enjoyable tales. Sometimes people prevail–for the moment. Sometimes the world goes to hell. All in all, I look forward to reading more of Meikle’s work!

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Review: “Bug Eyed Monsters,” William Meikle

Pros: These stories are addictive
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Bug Eyed Monsters: A Creature Feature Collection is an anthology that covers a wide array of creepy, rampaging beasties.

One story in particular (Into the Valley of Death) is highly reminiscent of the S-Squad series: military-versus-monsters fun. This story is set a bit earlier in time, and deals with giant, carnivorous beetles. Another story (Discontinuity) is clearly related to the S-Squad novel Infestation, with its giant, carnivorous Isopods. There are some other similar military-vs-monsters stories, such as one that pits giant crabs against giant scorpions as they rampage across the countryside. Meikle even manages to make giant houseflies creepy and scary. I’d say roughly half of the book consists of fighting against giant monsters of one kind or another, and it’s really fun. I keep finding that I can’t get enough of Meikle’s monster tales.

The rest of the book has some really interesting things going on as well. There are multiple Lovecraft references, including two stories with Shoggoths. A story that takes place in a post-apocalyptic zoo (Staying Alive Among the Beasts) is one of my favorites. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say it really tickled me and it had a very different air than the rest of the stories. There’s even a lifeform in one story that seems to be evolving to eat plastic–but you know it won’t stay that benign!

A number of time periods are represented. There are multiple stories that take place in the 1950s, and one that takes place in 2126 (Habitat). That one involves the ISS and giant spiders.

I love the fact that the protagonists don’t always win, don’t always lose, and often end with a temporary fix in place rather than the certainty of success. So you never really know how things will end. Some authors have very predictable types of endings, which can get boring after a while, so I appreciate this.

All in all I really had fun reading this collection, and look forward to reading even more by this author!

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