Book Review: Doubleblind by Ann Aguirre

Review a mid-series book? Am I mad? Often the first book gets the most reviews, but I think it’s worth commenting on later ones so people know whether they want to stay along for the ride.

The time and place

Most of the book takes place on planet Ithiss-Tor, the homeworld of the insectoid Ithtorians, who can disguise themselves as anyone. I assume the setting is far future or parallel universe.

The suspension of disbelief

There are all kinds of aliens, mostly bipedal. There’s AI and pretty high technology. Space navigation is done by a pilot and Jumper, a person who can access grimspace, the woobly hyperspace that ships go through to get to different stars and planets. I believe it’s what makes FTL possible. Jumpers tend to burn out and die with little or no warning.

The quick summary

This is book three in the Sirantha Jax series. Sirantha Jax, a Jumper, is sent to Ithiss-Tor to broker an alliance between the Ithtorians and a human Conglomerate. The people-eating Morgut are attacking human outposts, and the Conglomerate thinks the Ithtorians can intimidate the Morgut out of attacking. However, not all Ithtorian leadership is on board. Meanwhile, the criminal Syndicate and the disgraced megacorp Farwan are trying to take advantage of the political situation. Jax also needs to win back her lover, March, who has detached himself from feeling anything.

My squees

Character development! Jax, March, Constance, and especially Vel have come a long way since the first book. They have suffered and laughed together, and their trials have made their relationships deeper. Jax continues to process her grief regarding her lost love, Kai, and it’s good to see her less tangled up about it, even if she has to go through a lot of pain to do so. She also struggles to process her new responsibilities without going crazy or becoming someone she can’t bear to be around. She has to make some choices she feels awful about in which she would have decided differently one book ago or at the beginning of the saga.

There’s action with the politics, for those who would worry about a book about diplomacy dragging. We learn lots about the Ithtorian world, which feels richer than any other place we’ve been. The culture is sufficiently alien that I had to think about the customs, but civilized so I could keep track of secondary characters easily.

My grumbles

For such vivid characters in earlier books, Doc Saul and Hit are given small roles that left me wondering if there could be more involvement with them.

I wasn’t super stoked by the interludes from the press. Since we’re cooped up on the planet, it’s nice to know what’s going on out there, but the articles felt a bit scattered to me. There’s a theme going through them, but I admit I breezed through them. The end felt a bit cliffhanger and unexpected, but luckily for me, the fourth book’s published and I can buy it or pick it up at the library.

Read if you

  • Enjoyed Grimspace
  • Like watching characters grow as they fumble around their lives
  • Dig space opera politics and trying to get others to cooperate a la Mass Effect 3

Skip if you

  • Haven’t read any previous books in the Sirantha Jax series. Okay, this is not a skip, but a delay- I recommend Grimspace
  • Don’t want to deal with politics or cultural shaming of the rebel
  • Watched praying mantises mate violently and had problems with that (not shown, but implied)

Final thoughts

I loved Grimspace. I thought Wanderlust slowed a bit down and less happened compared to the first book, but Doubleblind picks the action and story up again. This is not a standalone book. Reading the previous books gave me a richer experience with the characters, not just the plot background. I’m going to take a break sideways and read Aguirre’s Perdition, which is a spin-off three-book series. The new book, Breakout, came out this week.

Author site: www.annaguirre.com

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N / BAM / Indiebound / Vroman’s / Book Depository / Powell’s / iBooks

Going outside the comfort zone

For writing class, I’m trying my hand at a fantasy short story, starring a country’s armed forces holding the line against shadow horrors while the civilians evacuate. I don’t know whether the idea is worthy of expansion or what it would feature besides combat, nightmares, and people attempting to cope. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, though. Just like science fiction, there’s world-building and infilling. The suspension of disbelief can be pretty delicate- can I convince you that there are horrible monsters coming from the south magnetic pole to ravage humanity and destroying what’s in their paths? Would you believe that the people living closest to the pole have a mix of customs not seen in our world? Is using arquebuses with female representation in the army too much of a stretch? The science fiction I write is about predictions for our world, the fantasy about less likely possibilities for any world.

Our instructor advised us to try writing something we don’t usually write, hence the experiment of possibly going outside of my comfort zone, which didn’t happen but was worth pondering.  My comfort zone is ill-defined. As a teenager, I read William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch. That hit my boundaries with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I think there’s far more in my comfort zone now because of the space Naked Lunch created in my mind by crushing linear time. It’s not often you see a David Cronenberg movie and think, “hey that made a lot more sense than the book.” Typewriter sex and all.

The comfort zone indicates feeling in control, a lack of stress instead of ease of reading. I was going to mention Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and Gene Wolfe’s The Urth of the New Sun, but they were difficult to read and required digesting, not stressful. I could lose myself in the book, but it didn’t feel like baddies were holding me captive and beating me repeatedly about the head and shoulders despite my pleas. Stressful subjects become more so if I become held in their grips-  feel more uncomfortable when I am under a story’s sway and I get the heebie-jeebies. If I feel detached from a story, it’s harder to violate my boundaries because I am less vulnerable with distance.

For example, a death by sex scene can make me think ‘ew, that’s not okay’ or it can make me think ‘oh holy Lego Man I never want to have sex again.’ The writer’s job here is to make me turned on and horrified. I will also mention body horror to the mix because it can be delicious and emetic at the same time: a beautiful flower growing inside a girl, and the petals are starting to erupt from one of her eyes. Inducing two opposing emotional reactions at the same time causes dissonance in my brain, and it makes me question what’s going on with the juxtaposition that makes me uncomfortable. This way, I learn more about myself and possibly other humans.

There are also books that I consider out of the zone I read in because I don’t think I get what I should from some of the subject matter. In the romance genre, I tend to shy away from BDSM and multiple partners because I find them either boring or confusing. Not everyone is aroused by everything, and that’s just fine: vanilla doesn’t work well for some, homosexual isn’t hot for everyone. I feel a little awkward when I am reading something and thinking, “This would be hot for someone else, but I am not experiencing that thrill. I guess it’s cool that the characters are enjoying themselves?” The discomfort is a mismatch of reader and the work, and trying to figure out how to frame the book or large parts of it when I lack some important feeling-context.

I think it’s important to challenge myself and go outside my comfort zone every so often. It’s a way I can avoid stagnation in my thoughts and deeds, and how I can ask new questions of the world and myself. That’s how I grow.

Book review: In the Devil’s Nebula by Anna Hackett

The time and place

See the title. Lots of action happens on planet Lucifa, the Assassin’s Guild base, but there’s also some on a cowboy western planet and in space. As for time, unspecified, but in our far future.

The suspension of disbelief

Space travel exists. Long ago, people fled Earth after nuclear war, scattering its treasures and museum pieces everywhere. Those are now valuable. There are several humanoid races around, perhaps all descended from us. People live on both low and high-tech worlds.

The summary

Someone’s stolen a rash of artifacts before the Phoenix brothers, treasure hunters extraordinaire, have been able to get to them. Somebody wants their attention. They track the thief to the Devil’s Nebula, where they find an assassin named Ria Dante who wants their help stealing the Lincoln Derringer so she may buy her freedom from her Guild with it. Zayn Phoenix, an ex-Strike Wing pilot, is flabbergasted to realize Ria looks just like Viktoria Anders, his late commanding officer who he still has nightmares about. Something fishy is going on here. The brothers agree to help Ria out to stick it to the Assassin’s Guild. On their hunt for the derringer, Zayn and Ria fall in love, only to discover dangerous secrets that could destroy Ria’s life and their relationship.

My squees

Fighter pilot and assassin? Yes please. These two go toe to toe with each other physically, have lots of fun together and are well-suited for their adventures. He’s got a need for speed, and she enjoys adventure thrills. He does muck things up a few times, but it is understandable. They respect the heck out of each other and their caring becomes selfless: Ria wants to protect Zayn from the punishment for her good deeds.

Zayn has gun issues. They get him into trouble, which I appreciate. His reasons would turn me off guns, of course. Although he deals with it in one instance, he isn’t miraculously cured after that. At least, he doesn’t say so.

This book is longer than At Star’s End, which I remember I feeling was a bit short. In the Devil’s Nebula gives us a little more time with the characters so the love story feels organic. The action-adventure keeps the story moving along at a fast clip, though.

The secondary cast is varied and vivid. Eos and Dathan return, Nik continues his bizarre game with Darc, and we meet a crazy teenager who’s an explosives prodigy.

My grumbles

Zayn plunges into a nightmare pretty early in the story, but keeps his PTSD a secret from his brothers. It’s a bit surprising since they seem so close.

There’s a character at the end who spills all the details of a complicated operation to enemies. He does this with very little threat or prompting. Why does he tell all of this to people he knows are hostile? I would have preferred our heroes to put the pieces together, perhaps researching/hacking a console at the site.

This is the third Phoenix Adventures book in a row I’ve read where the female protagonist does not have (by birth or by grooming) a certain kind of body hair and the male considers this sexy. That kind of squicks me out with its consistency.

Read if you

  • Enjoy action-adventure plots
  • Have a soft spot for wounded warriors
  • Like your love scenes picante

Skip if you

  • Want a slow, deliberate love story
  • Avoid swear words
  • Think people without hair that a bikini would cover are a giant turn-off

Disclosure:

I’m a member of Anna’s Launch Team. I purchased this book on my own.

With what Zayn’s been through, I’d assume he needs a psychologist. Although he can face the events on Lucifa with some closure now, I doubt the horrifying scenes he remembers will just fade away. Ria also has plenty left to process at the end of the story, and I hope we see those ideas explored in their appearances in further books. I do recommend you read At Star’s End to get a bit more on Zayn, but it’s not necessary.

Author site: annahackettbooks.com

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Kobo

SFR book review debrief

I reviewed all the books I set out to from the raffle, plus some bonus Anna Hackett. Phew. I had several relatively uneventful weeks until my birthday, and then I slowed down a bit. Will I continue writing reviews? Yes, but at a slower pace.  Since I’m a member of Anna Hackett’s Launch Team, expect to see some more of that here. There are more authors I want to discover, and some authors I want to try something different by.

My taste in entertainment is not perfectly correlated to what I think is ‘good,’ nor does it dictate what I would recommend to others. I understand the desire for a quantitative score when reviewing material, but I don’t like giving one. To add to my difficulties, Amazon and Goodreads have different meanings for the same star ratings. I know that writing is difficult and I feel like I’m critiquing someone else’s child on the child’s personality. How can I be fair to writers and readers?

I decided to treat writing a book review as a matchmaking process. How do I connect the book with readers who will like it? What are the salient parts of the story that others may connect with? Let’s try breaking the book down so I don’t waste anyone’s time and the review reader can get what they want to. Read if you/Skip if you sections may help out prospective readers more than the summary and shouldn’t reflect my preferences. My personal feelings are in the Squees and Grumbles sections, so they are more subjective.

The majority of SFR I’ve read in the past month is space opera. Spaceships, lasers, and aliens pepper these stories. I felt a bit exhausted. I love quantum physics and astronomy as much as the next nerd who took astronomy for fun in college, but some of the aspects of space travel began to blur together after a while. Space opera explores the concept of discovery and of the alien. How do humans respond to situations with a good deal of the unknown? The books made me think about how I handle my fears, change, and the unfamiliar.

The alien invasion setup, which I encountered in some of my reading, overlaps space opera, but with lots of built-in urgency. It tends to be Earthside, grounding our setting in something more familiar with, and shows a struggle against the aliens, who usually aren’t sympathetic. This poses more traditional questions to me about resources and conflicts. How do we survive under threat, what concessions do we make in no-win situations, and how much of our character do we lose during protracted conflict? The stories I like best tend to show an understanding of the opponent’s way of life and acknowledge their personhood. A faceless enemy that operates inscrutably is less interesting to me.

Most of the characters I encountered were white. Of the human characters in the ten books I reviewed, only Michi (support character) and Lana of Lana’s Comet and Eos Rai of At Star’s End are people of color. Mirsee and Tyree of Tethered have coal-black skin but are aliens descended from humans. Are nonwhite people invisible in our future? This seems odd to me. Perhaps it’s author background? What would it mean to be a race that is currently a minority in the Anglosphere after several centuries or millennia? What would it mean to be mixed-race like me? Those are questions I would like to see more exploration of. When I started my first cyberpunk story, I wrote about a black female protagonist and a genderfluid best buddy. I have not lived the experience of what it means to be black, queer, or trans* today, so readers could question my authenticity. However, I would think the bionic corporate assassin bit would be even less authentic.

I was pleased to find several characters living with and coping with disabilities. Cyprus of Lana’s Comet, a major character in Inherit the Stars, and Gema of Alien Blood have some issues that interfere with everyday life that they need to make accommodations for. Disability may mean life would be a bit easier with more advanced technology and medicine…but those societies create new disabilities, too. It’s interesting that although males are often aliens, they are not shown with significant disadvantages in life that they cannot escape people knowing on sight. This could be sample size, but I think it’s an issue within the entire romance genre.

I’m so happy I found all of this. More reviews to come! Once again, thank you to Smart Girls Love Scifi blog for their birthday celebration, and all the authors who participated in the raffles!

Book Review: Alien Blood by Melisse Aires

The time and place

The future, on a habitable planet unknown to the protagonists

The suspension of disbelief

Space travel exists. Humanity found it could breed with a species of alien it found called the Zh Cle’. Said aliens have some insectoid features, which made some humans totally freak out and start genetically engineering ‘perfected’ humans (called Puregens) to keep up with the half-breeds. Now those not Puregen are discriminated against and not allowed on some worlds.

The quick summary

Reality television in space! Two prisoners with minor transgressions are teamed up for the Survival Game show. If they win, they get their freedom and some money. Gema is a vagrant and Kellac a Puregen military officer. Despite their vast differences in social station, they get along well as they deal with their growing attraction. Then the production team crashes and all the contestants are stranded. How do Gema and Kellac survive, and can their relationship survive a return to civilization?

My squees

The concept of the reality show and its horrible rules and surveillance is a great setup. I enjoyed hating the Game Master, the little camera drones, the yucky tactics our protagonists had to deal with. I liked that they were penalized for being decent people, because that’s my experience of elimination-reality shows. Kellac is a stand-up person.

Kellac’s attraction to Gema was a bit strange to me at first, suggesting that Puregen people were not societally conditioned to find attractiveness in what they engineered to be the best humans. However, he does explain that when everyone looks beautiful in a similar way, that standard of beauty isn’t much of a draw. She is different than the women he’s used to, and he finds that fascinating. I like it when books explore concepts of otherness and feeling apart from society.

My grumbles

Although I didn’t see any spelling errors, I found copy editing mistakes. There are plenty of commas missing. When I notice an editing issue, I lose the story and have to engage myself again.

I found it difficult to immerse myself in the book, and I can’t completely explain why. Time felt a little disjoint near the end, and the structure felt like it could be tightened or the pace faster. Two important side characters do not make an appearance until late in the book, so it was difficult for me to make a connection to them.

Read if you

  • Love Survivor-type reality shows
  • Think it’s time the bug aliens get some love and sympathetic treatment
  • Are interested in disability and speciesism issues

Skip if you

  • Want an ensemble cast
  • Prefer on-ship in-space action with lasers: space opera vs. planetary romance, if you will

Disclosure and final thoughts

I won this book in a raffle and review this book unsolicited as a token of appreciation for the author’s generosity to the community.

Author site: melisseaires.blogspot.com

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / Amazon UK / Nook / Kobo