Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

clockworkThe Clockwork Dynasty
Daniel H. Wilson
Fantasy
309 pages
Published 2017

Well. This one was unique! Pretty good, too. The story bounces between the present and the past, telling the story of a – race, I suppose – that has always lived alongside humans, but hidden. Typical urban fantasy, right? Except this – race – is robots. Automatons, they call themselves. Created by a race they call the progenitor race, or First Humans, they have waited alongside mankind for their creators to return. Their energy reserves are running low, however, and some have resorted to cannibalizing each other’s parts to stay alive. Enter our human protagonist, in possession of an ancient artifact passed down from her grandfather, who obtained it in World War II. Fascinated by it since she was a little girl, she’s made a career out of studying old clockwork toys, and has started to get a little too close to the truth.

The chapters of the book set in the present center on June Stefanov, the human woman who stumbles upon the truth. The chapters set in the past show history from the vantage point of Peter, her automaton companion. The bouncing back and forth happens a touch too quickly in some places, though it does do a good job of showing us what we need to know rather than telling us, which I always like. The details of how the automatons worked were fascinating, though obviously a bit magical. The automatons themselves don’t really understand much of it. The author has written other novels about robots, and in fact has a Ph.D. in robotics, so it’s pretty cohesive.

The plot rockets right along – I read the book in one sitting – and the action is pretty awesome. I wish there had been a bit more characterization of June. Other than being good at clockwork stuff, and a very curious person, we really don’t know much about her, and never find out. The book is more Peter’s story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was definitely a different spin on “hidden race existing beside humans.” Oh – and the villain’s armor was badass!

From the cover of The Clockwork Dynasty:

Present Day: When a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world that lurks just under the surface of our own. With her career and her life at stake, June Stefanov will ally with a remarkable traveler who exposes her to a reality she never imagined as they embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past…

Russia, 1710: In the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly humanlike mechanical beings. Peter and Elena are a brother and sister fallen out of time, in possession of uncanny power, and destined to serve great empires. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries. 

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Book Review: On Tyranny

tyrannyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
Nonfiction
126 pages
Published 2017

On Tyranny is a short little book. I don’t think it needs to be longer – it’s easy to read, succinct, and is meant to serve as a warning. If anyone wants to learn more about any of the twenty lessons, there are plenty of resources for that. It’s simply “HEY. This happened before. And this happened before. And this happened before and YOU NEED TO SEE THESE SIMILARITIES.” It was a very quick read, but has left me with a lot to think about.

The format is simple: Twenty sections, each beginning with a lesson title and a short summary paragraph, then going into more detail in the next two to three pages. For example:

Do Not Obey In Advance.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

The next few pages talk about Austrian Nazis rounded up Jews and used them as forced labor, before the German government told them to. When Jewish businesses were marked as such, people immediately started avoiding them. Anticipatory obedience. (Relate this to the suddenly overt racism and Nazi marches we’re now facing in the US – where that used to be hidden.)

Another example:

Take Responsibility For The Face Of The World.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

The next pages talk about propaganda, and signs. If we tolerate swastikas, we imply that we accept them. That we support them. And if the oppressed groups that those swastikas are aimed at see everyone around them supporting them, who do they look to for help? All it takes is one person deciding to scrub off or paint over the swastika, for people around them to realize that’s a thing that can be done. This plays into another section, which talked about Standing Out. Do the thing that makes you stand out – whether that’s standing up for a minority, or scrubbing swastikas off walls, or attending a protest. If you don’t stand out, you’re too easily ignored as part of the problem.

This book had lots of holds at my local library – while I was sad to have to wait so long, I was pleased that so many people wanted to read it. I was 35th in line at one point! Just knowing that so many people want to read it is a little reassuring. The author has written several books on the Holocaust, WWII, and the rise of Hitler, so he knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in his writing.

On Tyranny is a quick read and does an amazing job of boiling a lot of complicated concepts down into very succinct little points. I definitely recommend it as a jumping off point. Just don’t let it be all you read.

From the cover of On Tyranny:

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Book Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

victorianThat Inevitable Victorian Thing
by E. K. Johnston
Fiction/Alternate History
327 pages
Published 2017

Representation, bitches! This book features a bisexual, intersex young woman. (I say woman, because she is female-presenting and uses female pronouns.) It also features a not-quite-love-triangle that turns into something more like polyamory. (Sorry, that’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can see it coming from a mile away, and the cover description heavily implies the same.)

It’s not realistic in the least – everything falls together nicely and it’s a bit of a “princess saves the day by virtue of being a princess” kind of plot. But the twist on the history is a very pleasant one – and making the British Empire an Empire that values diversity and the melding of cultures and not looking down on anyone because they’re different is a really nice change of pace. It’s a WONDERFUL bit of escapist fantasy given today’s world, I have to say.

I’d actually really like to see the darker side of this same world explored. One of the main plot points in the book is that there is a computer database of genetics. Everyone in the British Empire, when they turn 18, is encouraged to have their DNA sequenced and entered into the computer to find good genetic matches. They then have the opportunity to chat with those matches and eventually meet them. It’s accepted custom, and you’re definitely viewed as odd if you choose NOT to do it, though Helena’s parents were a love match and never had their DNA matched through the computer. Helena’s love interest is a boy she grew up with, she really only ran her DNA through the computer for kicks. So it’s not mandatory – except for royals. But that this computer and database exists leaves room for a darker side. What about genetic modification? Forced marriages for certain genetic outcomes? That has to be happening somewhere. That Inevitable Victorian Thing really only looked at the fun, light-hearted, good uses of this technology. I’d love to see the other side.

Oh – while the book definitely has a Victorian flavor, it’s definitely set in modern day, or perhaps a little past. It’s not Victorian era.

Fun little book. A good escape from a racist, homophobic world to a more diverse, accepting one. But a little TOO fluffy bunny for my personal tastes.

The book is set entirely in Ontario, making it part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest of my Read Canadian books here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. this book!
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of That Inevitable Victorian Thing:

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire never fell – a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that change people and the world.

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the Empire, a descendant of Queen Victoria I. The traditions of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage and a life of duty. But first she’ll have one summer of freedom in a far corner of the Empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the Empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and raucous country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the course of history in the process.

Book Review: Next Year, For Sure

nextyearNext Year, For Sure
Zoey Leigh Peterson
Fiction
241 pages
Published 2017

(WARNING: SPOILERS AT THE END OF THE REVIEW)

I’ve been procrastinating on this review because I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this book. I liked it – but I didn’t. It was not at ALL my normal style of book, but it is about a topic near and dear to my heart. It was very realistic but also relied heavily on a stereotype.

So first off, Next Year, For Sure is about a couple opening up their relationship. Not just to casual sex, but to actual other relationships. (It’s called polyamory, though the word is never mentioned in the book.) Kathryn and Chris have been together for 9 years and have what everyone would call the perfect relationship. And they really do. But then Chris gets a crush, and Kathryn encourages him to follow up on it. The rest of the book is the year following this event, and how it affects their relationship.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am polyamorous – coincidentally, we opened up our relationship almost nine years in, but not because he had a crush. It was mostly because my husband is bisexual, and I wanted him to have the freedom to explore that. We’d been introduced to the concept by some friends of ours, and had discussed it for almost three years before officially opening up. So we had a lot more communication and preparation than the couple in the book did. However, the emotions that Kathryn goes through as Chris explores his new relationship are very, very accurate. We did not have the same end result as the couple in the book do (Spoiler: that’s a good thing!) but the feelings and thoughts that Kathryn has for a large part of the book I am intimately familiar with. Even down to the time she spends very, very sick when her husband is out of town with the other woman. That actually happened to me. I could have called him home (he was a three hour drive away) and on later reflection, all parties concerned agreed that I SHOULD have. (He did not realize how sick I was until he got home a few days later.) So it was really interesting watching all this play out in the book when so much of it felt so familiar.

I was, however, extremely disappointed with how the book ended. I feel a bit like I’m missing the last third of the book. I don’t feel like there was any closure, more like the author simply got tired of writing and just – stopped.

Quick digression before getting to the spoilers: the author is Canadian, so this book is part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. this book!
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

(SPOILERS FOLLOWING)

Another thing I was extremely disappointed by is Peterson falls back on the stereotype that opening up doesn’t work – that the first relationship doesn’t last in poly. Chris and Kathryn break up, though they remain friends. That bothers me. Some of the most solid relationships I know of are poly couples – one is actually a triad, and has been for several years. At least two others are LONGtime couples, where each partner has other partners. My husband has been with his other partner for almost four years now. We’ve had a couple of rough spots, ironing out how this works for us, but we’ve never come close to breaking up. So it’s frustrating to see a novel that treats poly in an otherwise positive light relying on an old stereotype of breaking up the founding couple. It just feeds into “obviously something is wrong in the relationship if they’re looking elsewhere.” So while the portrayals of emotions involved in opening up are SO. SPOT. ON. I find it really hard to recommend this book because of how it ultimately misrepresents something that has so little representation in media to begin with. I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room, to be honest.

Final verdict – it’s good. It’s probably worth reading, especially if you’re poly. But the ending SUCKS.

In typing the jacket description up, I was reminded of a few other things. One: the book alternates between Kathryn’s perspective and Chris’s perspective, but never gives us Emily’s perspective, and that’s a problem. There are three people in this relationship, not two. Also I’m a bit peeved at the last line of the description – it implies that true openness and transformation require the breakup at the end of the book, and that is not at ALL true. Again with the bad stereotypes!

From the cover of Next Year, For Sure:

After nine years together, Kathryn and Chris have the sort of relationship most would envy – warm and loving and deeply intertwined. But, as content as they are together, an enduring loneliness continues to haunt the dark corners of their relationship. When Chris tells Kathryn about his attraction to Emily, a vivacious young woman he sees often at the laundromat, Kathryn encourages him to ask her out on a date – certain that her bond with Chris is strong enough to weather whatever may come.

Next Year, For Sure tracks the tumultuous, revelatory, and often very funny year that follows. When Chris’s romance with Emily evolves beyond what anyone anticipated, both Chris and Kathryn are invited into Emily’s communal home, where Kathryn will discover new possibilities of her own. In the confusions, passions, and upheavals of their new lives, Kathryn and Chris are forced to reconsider their past and what they thought they knew about love.

Offering a luminous portrait of a relationship from two perspectives, Zoey Leigh Peterson has written an empathic, beautiful, and tremendously honest novel about a great love pushed to the edge. Deeply poignant and hugely entertaining, Next Year, For Sure shows us what true openness and transformation require.

 

Book Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

six of crowsSix of Crows (479 pages)
Crooked Kingdom (561 pages)
by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy
Published 2015/2016

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are a duology set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Grisha being the magic users in her world. I haven’t read the rest of the Grishaverse (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising) – but I will definitely be doing so, because Crows and Crooked Kingdom are AMAZING. I’m also looking forward even more to Bardugo’s Wonder Woman novel, Warbringer.

I was pretty surprised – normally books rotating between several viewpoints are confusing, but Bardugo handles the transitions seamlessly and unmistakably. I was never unsure of what character I was reading – each one really had their own unique voice. I also loved that she worked in an LGBT romance without it being in any way odd. No one in the novel found non-heterosexuality weird at all. It was treated just as matter of factly as opposite-sex romances, and I loved that.

Six of Crows opens on a gang being blackmailed into a job they don’t want to do. I can totally see the gang has a D&D group – and the books definitely feel a bit like a D&D campaign, albeit one with a mostly experienced group and a very experienced DM. crookedkingdom

You’ve got Kaz, the ringleader, who’s an all-around great thief but a superb tactician.

Inej, the acrobat assassin.

Jesper, the marksman hiding his magic ability.

Wylan, the rich merchant’s son on the outs with his father and fallen in with a bad crowd, and talented with demolitions.

Nina, the sexpot who wields magic, and has a love/hate relationship with Mathias, the barbarian who’s spent his life hunting magic users but is irresistibly attracted to Nina. (I can see the DM telling these two to hash out a background that will let them co-exist, which they obviously did.)

Each character has a complex back story that influences most of their actions, and different relationships with other members of the gang that also affects how they react. Their back stories don’t just explain their actions in the books, people and events from their backgrounds also show up to complicate matters in the present. The wheels-within-wheels of the plotline is EXACTLY what I love about good political fantasies. The world-building is superb, and Bardugo has given just as much thought to the seedy underbelly of her world as she has the magic and politics.

I really, really loved this duology, and I see now why people rave about this universe. It is VERY well deserved.

From the cover of Six of Crows:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction―if they don’t kill each other first.