Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: “Armistice” by Lara Elena Donnelly

Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly

The sequel to Amberlough continues the complex plot (and “plot” is the right word), following the successful coup in the first story.  (I’m not sure exactly how much of an “armistice” is actually happening)

The main characters have fled the city of Amberlough, but resistance and espionage continues in other locations. The politics is complicated, and gets ever more complex as we discover regional factions, double and triple agents, and subterfuge of many kinds.

It’s all hard to keep track off. Spy versus spy versus spy etc.

In this book, we learn a lot more about many of the characters, and meet a bunch of new folks.

Donnelly gives us yet more complicated gender relations and related politics thereof. It’s head-spinningly confusing.  It’s not so much the relations (which are no more or less predictable than the human heart), it’s the variety of social meanings, positive and negative.  There are taboos and rules and laws and family reactions, and it all so clearly arbitrary. I assume is part of the point.

Of course, however you slice it, there is love and family, and people will go to great lengths to protect and help the ones they love—no matter how that love is defined, and no matter who does or doesn’t like it.  There is politics, and then there is taking care of your family, friends, and partner(s).  That’s definitely the important point, no?

As in book 1, there is lavish attention to the “scenery”, fantastic settings, architecture, exotic fashion, and complex cultural situations.  Donnelly obviously had fun creating this world, and she is really good at it.  (Honestly, though, I haven’t a clue about the clothing. Donnelly’s lovingly detailed descriptions are lost on me.)

The world of Amberlough has technology sort of late twenties in Europe. Much of the action takes place at a film studio, where they are making new-fangled cinematic spectaculars.  Apparently, wireless and airplanes have also appeared at least for the elite (these were noticeably not visible in book 1.)

The political situation is careening toward a messy, multi-sided civil war, and our protagonists are deeply involved in.

By the end of book 2, nothing is settled yet, so there will surely be a Book 3.

  1. Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice, New York, TOR, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This book has been widely acclaimed, and I can see why.  It’s a timely topic, but most important, it’s a beautiful book.

This story follows the life of two young people in a contemporary Muslim city (and there are too many cities that it could be).  Jihadist war comes to the city, and they are trapped. They eventually flee and become one of millions of refugees.

Hamid is quite restrained, but still our hearts and souls ache for Nadia and Saeed and for all the innocents caught in the war, and for all the refugees.  The creeping loss of normal life, of a home, of loved ones, of a future, and of hope is beautifully and painfully told.  We also feel the deep uncertainty of the shaky safety of a refugee camp may be destroyed at any time by governments or mobs or starvation.

Of course, people remain people, and good people help each other.  Refugee life is terrifying, disorienting, and often psychologically crushing.  But there is still life and love and hope remains alive.

But this book isn’t journalism or propaganda.  This is fantasy.

The fantasy is that even when millions are trapped by war and disaster, teleporting “doors” open.  Through a door people can instantly to another place on Earth, though the connections seem rather random.

Anyone can travel anywhere, and the result is vast flows of migrants and refugees. No one can stop the flow, though many will try to do so though violence. A horrible backlash is predictable.

This is an obvious parable for our times, which are seeing huge migrations and resistance to receiving migrants.

The migrants themselves are from all over, and travel to many destinations.  The migrant camps are full of people who have nothing in common except they are refugees from their original home, and face the same nativist forces.  It’s a difficult situation, made worse by poverty and violence.

In this fantasy, Hamid sees humanity prevail.  After knee jerk military and nativist mob reactions, peace breaks out.  Perhaps out of common decency, perhaps facing the fact that the flows cannot be stopped, the hosts turn away from massacre and instead work to build new cities for and with the new migrants.

After several transits, Nadia and Saeed end up in a huge new settlement on the Marin highlands in California. The hard but relatively safe and decent life there are such a relief, we feel a deep joy. The two not-quite-lovers part there, each to a new love and a new, better life.  There is still loss and a profound sense of separation from home and the past.  But loss is part of everyone’s life. ”We are all migrants through time.”

Oh, that today’s refugees and unwanted can reach such safe harbor!  Such a beautiful fantasy!

  1. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, New York, Riverhead Press, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Versailles” by Yannick Hill

Versailles by Yannick Hill

This book has some interesting images, clearly influenced by video games.  (Set in a gigantic dungeon house with 100 rooms, each designed to be a different vivid experience….)

Unfortunately, the plot and characters are also video game-ish, which is to say shallow and not particularly interesting.

The story isn’t at all clear, but centers around the unhappy family of the social media billionaire (trillionaire?) who built “Versailles”, the largest house in America. The whole family seems mad, and the combination of preposterous wealth with mental instability is never a good thing.  The overall dynamic is of technologically assisted obsessive control by dad, to the extent that is has clearly destroy mom and warped the kids.  If nothing else, this story shows that the black helicopters are as likely to come from your “loved ones” as from unknown forces.

“A fortress for his family. And everything they needed, right here. Versailles. House of a thousand cameras. There every mover recorded. Versailles as fortress, the choice of stone, walls within walls, the miles of cable and the levels of control. You can have anything you want, Casey would tell their children. Like Disney World, but no Mickey Mouse.” p.28

The daughter, Missy, runs away on her sixteenth birthday.  This would be a pretty normal and rational thing to do, considering her life inside the mansion.  But she doesn’t just run away, she follows a series of breadcrumbs that are obviously laid down to lure her. It’s just like a live action game, except no one really knows who is the dungeon master and what they intend for her.  Does this make sense?  Well, sure, a desperately unhappy teenager might, I guess.

I grant that there is some interesting “scenery”, in the crazy high tech mansion, and some of the events faced the by family. In fact, that’s really the main point.  The plot is sort of “exploring the dungeon”. Sigh.

But the motives and interactions of the people are opaque and incomprehensible.  I understand that there is a mystery here to build tension, but that doesn’t mean that the dialog should make no sense at all, and refer to events not explained anywhere.

This book would all be a bit of innocent fun except that the writing style is just plain hard to read.  Perhaps intended to be stream of consciousness, much of the text is impossible to interpret.  Hill also has a penchant for repetition, as in exactly repeating the same phrase several paragraphs in a row.  That gets old fast.

“Versailles. An American dream, a dream of life. Home to the four Baers. Missy…..

“Versailles. An American dream, a dream of life. Home to the four Baers. River…..

“An American dream, a dream of life. Home to the four Baers. Synthea….” (three successive paragrapsh, pp. 358-359)

Overall, this could probably have been pared down to half the length.  Sigh.

  1. Yannick Hill, Versailles, London, Unbound, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Amberlough” by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

I must say, Amberlough is a rather dark fantasy.  Correction, it’s very dark. And grim. And violent.

It is set in an alternative world with 1920’s technology (telephones, but not radio; cars, but not airplanes; etc.).  Unfortunately, it also features 1920’s style politics, as a violent authoritarian movement pushes out the government and begins to purge the society of undesirables.

Donnelly also amplifies 1920’s style “decadent” life style, as well as a society that is way more gender fluid than any historical precedent.  What may have been common in 20th cnetury show business and the underground is pretty mainstream in Amberlough.  Most of the characters have a pretty complicated love life, drugs are ubiquitous, and same sex relations are common and open.  Women have powerful positions in all areas of society.

It is important to note that this exotic society is still filled with real people, who love, fight, suffer, and survive.  Corruption is rampant and looks pretty much the same no matter what the sexual orientation of the players.  Helping each other still counts, no matter what else. Dreams and nightmares still drive people.  The little guys are sucked in and chewed up by the power games of the big guys. “[T]he problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” and all that.

The plot takes place as a Fascist coup is coming to town.  This is bad for everyone, but the bully boys have a special fervor to purge corruption and decadence from the society.  Violently purge it.

This makes the crisis both personal and life-threatening for many of characters.

It’s an ugly mess, and there are a lot of casualties. There’s no place to run to.  It’s awful.

By the end of the book, things are really bad.  Book 2 was published this month.

Whatever Donnelly’s intention, I’m sure that many people will read this as commentary on contemporary politics.  Fortunately, however provocative it may be, this book is no hack political fantasy. It’s a good story, and will be just as good in a few years.  Let’s hope the sequel(s) keep up the good work.

I personally don’t enjoy the graphic details in some sections.  We’re not supposed to enjoy them. But they certainly make us feel the depth of love, fear, lust, and pain.

I would like to warn people to not take this as a blue print for “resistance” or anything else. This isn’t a story of our time and place, and there is a huge difference between fantasies of political violence and real violence.  If you read Amberlough carefully, you’ll see that the violence is disastrous for everyone.

Like I said, it’s a very dark story.  I doubt that the sequel is going to make things OK.

  1. Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough, New York, TOR, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Judge Hunter” by Christopher Buckley

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley

In recent years, Christopher Buckley has turned from humorous contemporary political satire (They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (2012) was great) to humorous historical satire (The Relic Master (2015)).

His new novel is set in England and New England circa 1664.  The story is laced with many real life characters and events, including diarist Samuel Pepys, top English politicians in the time of Charles II.  This is a time of multiple English – Dutch wars, and continuing political and religious turmoil within England and in New England.

The story itself involves the fictionalized adventures of one Balthazar (Balty) de St. Michel (a real person) in New England and New Holland (now New York). He is dispatched by Charles II  to look for two fugitives who condemned Charles I to death–the “judges” that are being hunted.  But Balty’s mission is partly a cover for other empire games, and he is caught up in larger events.

In the course of this mission, he meets various Puritan leaders, as well as Indians, Quakers, swashbuckling frontiersmen, and Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam.  He participates in real events, indeed, he plays a key role.

It’s a rollicking yard, told with a lot of humor and banter. It’s hard to know just how historically authentic much of the dialog might be, but it’s fun to read.

The joke, of course, is that there is lots of politics, corruption, religious strife (not to mention corrupt religious political strife)—and it all seems pretty familiar to us today. If we don’t completely grok the details of the issues, we certainly recognize the basic dynamics in today’s politics and religion.

Buckley’s deft writing makes what would be a grim story fun to read. If he sneaks in some history lessons, that’s a bonus for everyone.  If all history books were this fun to read, we’d all know a lot more about history.

  1. Christopher Buckley, The Judge Hunter, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Adjustment Day” by Chuck Palahiuk

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk

Ouch.  Palahniuk’s stories are never easy reading.  He’s gotten inside violence, porn, and even being damned to hell.

His new novel gets inside the wilder fantasies of the Internet, confused and violent ideologies obsessed with white and male identity. It might be satire, but it cuts awfully close to the bone. However crazy, it’s all far, far too real to easily laugh at.

The “day” in question refers to a mass uprising in which thousands of (mostly white) men gun down politicians, celebrities, teachers, and anyone on “The List”.  The List was crowd sourced on the Internet, essentially voting for “America’s least wanted”.

After Adjustment Day, the shooters take over and create a new political order, sorted by “identity”: the “formerly united states” split into separate nations for “whites”, “blacks”, and “gays”.  Everyone who doesn’t fit one of these identities are deported or worse.

And so on.  A new political correctness. Authoritarian government.

It’s grim and ugly, but Palahniuk does a pretty good job of making it psychologically real. We kind of get where people are coming from, and how they might get to this point.  Interestingly, the only overt “preaching” is all from the point of view of the uprising.  If you come away from this book rejecting the alt-right-y ideology of the new order, it’s not because Palahniuk told you you should.  It’s because the new order is so repulsive and/or idiotic in such obvious ways.

Inevitably, ironies abound.  This rebellion against an incompetent, corrupt and unfair culture leads instantly to a new incompetent, corrupt and unfair culture. Naïve concepts about cultural identity quickly run afoul of messy reality.  Forcing everyone into one of three groups doesn’t handle all the weird cases.

Anyway, this book certainly isn’t intended to be a blue print.  And I hope no one takes it as one, because it won’t work.

This story is basically a detailed elaboration of popular fantasies.  For that reason, much of the detail makes no sense at all and couldn’t happen.  The uprising is unimaginably uniformly successful, which is not very plausible.  There is no resistance at all, which is a pipe dream.  Even after months, there is neither resistance nor disunity among the revolutionaries. Not likely.  And so on.

And, above all else, I had to wonder why no outside power steps in.  I mean, there are plenty of powers in the world that would waltz into a crippled and retrogressing America.  For that matter, deporting all the Jews, Asians, and Mexicans would hardly go without response from Israel or Mexico and everyone, would it?

I think Palahniuk himself is sensitive to the possibility that people will read his satire as a real, and  worse, try to live it out.  His earlier novel Fight Club (or at least the movie version) is much beloved by the “men’s movement”, and inspires some to live out its twisted ethos.  I don’t think he   meant for that to happen.

Perhaps this novel is an attempt to partially mitigate the mischief he inadvertently caused by Fight Club. It may be significant that in Adjustment Day he names Flight Club in the context of other literature that inspires the revolution, and he implies that it is misinterpreted by these goof balls.

While it’s hard to say that I exactly enjoyed this novel, I’m glad I read it.  It’s good, at least in the Chuck Palahniuk mode, which ain’t pretty at all.

  1. Chuck Palahniuk, Adjustment Day, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.


Book Review: “Blackfish City” by Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

This story is set in a not too distant future of flooded coasts, shattered civilization, and interesting technology.  The city of the title is officially named Quaanaak, floating offshore in the North Atlantic, inhabited by a mishmash of refugees from all the ravaged lands of the Earth.

Miller describes the life and culture of this community, which is run by deep and mysterious AIs which are probably beholden to the powerful but invisible “stakeholders”. The general ethos is rather libertarian, with the ever present threat of immediate expulsion or worse.

Quaanaaq is a city of refugees, where everyone hails from a lost homeland. Everyone is sad and demoralized, and most people are poor and without much hope. Ruled by unhuman and incomprehensible AIs, there is a large amount of learned helplessness.  Human action doesn’t mean much.  Out of this misery, a new culture is being forged, more or less.

At this time, a mysterious network stream titled “City Without A Map” tells secret and intimate stories of the city that are all too subversively true.  Who is the unknown author of these tales?

The city is plagued by another mystery, an inexplicable sexually transmitted disease called “The Breaks”.  The symptoms include uncontrolled “breaks” which appear to be reliving memories of other people.  Are these the real memories of the person who infected you, and all the others who infected him and so on?  And why has the all powerful AI not cured or even diagnosed the disease?  Is it part of some deeper conspiracy?

The story recounts the rumored arrival of a mysterious woman who seems to be one of the much storied nano-linked people.  She arrives riding an Orca (i.e., the Blackfish) with a not-really-tame Polar bear.  She seems to be brain linked to the Orca, and may have other super powers.

Is she real?  If so, why is she here?  What does she want?  Is she connected with the other mysteries and conspiracies that abound in the city?

Unwinding this mystery exposes some of the hidden secrets of the city and its people, and may overthrow some of the powers that be, and possibly liberate a damaged people. But nothing is certain.

There is quite a bit of technological wonder here, but Miller keeps the technology in the background (where it belongs). The political and cultural ideas are in the background, too, though they aren’t as interesting as the tech.

Teh important thing is that this is an interesting story, and the characters are human and sympathetic, even the bad guys. As in any good story, much of the struggle is about caring for each other, and the bonds of family and love.  In the end, we are rooting for these folks, hoping they can find a decent life together, one way or another.

  1. Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City, New York, HarperCollins, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews