Review – The Great Zoo of China

Cover of The Great Zoo of China by Matthew ReillyThe Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly

Jurassic Park, but Chinese, there are journalists mostly rather than scientists, and the creatures are dragons. And it’s really not a cutting edge idea: even without Jurassic Park, there’s stuff like Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons and plenty of other things which have dragons being real and in a real-world setting. The writing wasn’t good enough to sell this idea to me again: I’d rather get round to finishing Jurassic Park, or reread Brennan’s books.

It’s not bad as a light thriller, but it feels definitely gimmicky, like a cash-in. Particularly since I started hearing buzz about it when Jurassic World came out.

One thing in its favour, though: a strong central female character. It’s not so great that apart from her scars she’s conventionally attractive — like the author thought oh, she still has to be pretty — but it is great that she has them, and that they’re a legacy of her actual work with actually relevant creatures.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Cannonbridge

Cover of Cannonbridge by Jonathan BarnesCannonbridge, Jonathan Barnes

In some ways, I think the ending of this book spoiled the build-up. Unlike a lot of other readers, I found the build-up quite interesting, especially the mounting uncanniness. There were only a few authors I didn’t know mentioned in the story, though it took me a few moments to identify some of them when they appeared as characters. The whole conspiracy, the sense of mystery — it worked well for me, and I found the figure of Cannonbridge interesting, especially in his earlier appearances.

I was less enamoured of what, in the story, gives rise to him: I’d rather he was unexplained than this rather heavy-handed Money Is Bad stuff at the end. And I’m not sure about the way the final chapter goes, either — the revelation about a particular character, the meta-fiction there. It doesn’t feel right. It’s like two elements are sitting awkwardly together in this book, at least for this reader. I can certainly understand why others have found it so disappointing.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Moon-Flash

Cover of Moon-flash by Patricia McKillipMoon-Flash, Patricia McKillip

Apparently Moon-Flash actually has a sequel, but I’m not that interested in it. It’s interesting — probably a novella in length, and written with McKillip’s usual lyricism and style — but I felt it was whole enough in itself, and I’m not interested enough in the world or characters to keep following it. Their trip down the river leads to an almost inevitable conclusion, but the story manages to say something about myth and belief, about the way different cultures interpret things, about relationships between cultures. It’s a little Ursula Le Guin-ish, in that sense, now that I think about it: I could picture her writing a very similar story.

It’s actually not as fantastical as the other works by McKillip I’ve read before, so that makes it interesting too in comparison to the magic of her other work. At the same time, that’s here too, under the surface, in the myth-making.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Hollow City

Cover of The Hollow City by Ransom RiggsThe Hollow City, Ransom Riggs

I don’t think I have much to add with this book that I didn’t already say when it came to the first book. The juxtaposition of the vintage photography and the story works pretty well, even if the story rather demystifies the photographs by giving them explanations. The pacing is rather less glacial here, because the waiting’s over — a plot is in motion and the children have to keep moving, no matter what.

A little annoyingly, the books lead straight on, one from the other. You ideally need the next one on hand right away. My library doesn’t have the next book yet, so I can’t do that. There’s very little closure to make it feel like a natural ending — just, bam, another crisis, another problem, and… what now?

Well, I do want to find out, but if I have to wait, I’ll probably start forgetting details and get confused when I try to read the next one.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine

Bitch Planet vol 1Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine DeLandro

I originally received this to review, but because it’s very much designed to have double spreads and to be read across two pages, it just wasn’t readable that way. Fortunately, I’d preordered the TPB anyway. The problem is, I really don’t know what to think of it. I love the diversity of the characters, but I found myself only really knowing two or three of them for sure, each time they appeared. Part of that was the art and part of that is, hey, this is a women’s prison with a lot of inmates, and this is only five issues of the comic. There’s not really enough space to be properly introduced to everybody.

Despite the fact that I love the idea, and I love the trend of people getting the NC tattoos and how much it has spoken to many women, I don’t know if I actually like the product. But maybe it isn’t about liking — I do value the book. I like that it’s in your face and violent and, well, non-compliant. I like that it features a really overweight woman as a heroine who isn’t prepared to change to be somebody else’s ideal. I like that it offends and concerns ‘men’s rights activists’.

So maybe not my thing, but that doesn’t make it a bad comic.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Dark Metropolis

Cover of Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn DolamoreDark Metropolis, Jaclyn Dolamore

I was recommended this initially because there’s some LGBT content and an asexual character. Well, just to deal with that upfront: there’s a character who is, at least, not straight, and there’s a character who isn’t interested in sex. However, she’s not interested in sex because she’s not human, so that’s kind of… not asexuality. If you interpret her as ace, though, she’s also arguably aromantic.

Still, it’s an interesting story/world. It’s got a reasonably unique take on zombies, and an interesting historical background — there’s history and economics driving the plot, which makes it feel that much more fully realised. The main characters are all pretty young, and they mostly seem to react to things in a normal way for their age. Pacing and writing are reasonably good, too.

I think the only reason this is standing out, though, is because of the LGBT/ace characters; it has potential, but it didn’t sparkle for me. It was easy to read, but not unputdownable. I know there’s a second book, and I’m not in any hurry to get hold of it. It lacks a compelling spark of life, I think.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

From the description and the photographs included, I expected this book to be creepier than it was. The story itself, though, didn’t really creep me out — the photos are weird, but having in-story explanations for them kind of takes away that mystery and power. It’s still pretty atmospheric, but not creepy in the way I expected. I was a little surprised to see the fairly lukewarm reviews, though, because I got caught up in the story that’s actually here, and didn’t really mourn the one I didn’t get. (Probably partially because I am a gigantic wuss.)

I had some issues with the characters — why are those people who are repeating the same day over and over, who are hundreds of years old, still acting like children? If they’re learning, why aren’t they changing? They don’t lose their memories, so how are they so static? Even though the headmistress does so much to try and keep them within her loop, and satisfied with it, she can’t stop them interacting, learning from each other and from new people. The situation simply couldn’t stay so fixed, even with the threats the little community faces.

Still, I enjoyed reading this; the narrative swept me along enough that I actually finished it in one sitting, and I’m pondering getting the next book right away. Something about it manages to be compelling, so that I didn’t even really ask these questions while I was reading. Perhaps one best not overthought!

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Last Witness

Cover of The Last Witness by K.J. ParkerThe Last Witness, K.J. Parker

I love the way this novella takes the idea — that someone could perhaps look into your mind and take away your memories, at the cost of having to keep them themselves if there was anything distressing in them — and then develops it, runs with it, deals with what a character who could do that would be like, what they would be willing to do, what they’d feel about it. How they could profit from it, and what that might cost them.

The narrator is, of course, unreliable. He’s unreliable even to himself, because he doesn’t know which memories are his, and which memories might be missing. Truth is a malleable thing in this world, because it depends on what you believe, and he can change that. (It never really addresses what happens when someone has some kind of record of what he’s going to wipe.) Identity is malleable too — and his changes all the time as he takes on the memories of murderers and victims. It’s definitely a fertile ground for a story, and K.J. Parker makes great use of it.

This novella has convinced me I really need to get round to reading more of K.J. Parker’s work. He does an amazing job here of creating a character and a complex story from a simple seed — without it ever getting too tortuous.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Lifelode

Cover of Lifelode by Jo WaltonLifelode, Jo Walton
Originally reviewed 16th March, 2011

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Jo Walton, but it’s so hard to rate them in relation to each other, because they’re each so different. I enjoyed Lifelode more than Tooth and Claw, but perhaps less than Farthing — yet I rated both four stars. I loved Among Others most of all her work so far, and I’m not sure Lifelode matches up… Maybe I should be rating all her work that I’ve read so far five stars, except Tooth and Claw.

Her range of work is fascinating. Her books are not like each other, and yet all of them are well-written and ambitious, and succeed very well with their ambitions. The narration of Lifelode, for example, is done in both past and present tense, because for one of the main characters, time is like that: all things happening at once. I expected to see more of the more distant past, through Taveth, but it was very much about that generation, the people she knew. It’s a very warm book, full of family bonds and love.

It’s also interesting in that polyamory seems to be the default, and Jo Walton treats that sensitively. There’s a sense of great strength in the relationships, but also an acknowledgement of the problems they’ll succeed. There’s also LGBT people, and one who seems pretty much asexual. She always writes about all kinds of people, and that’s another thing I really appreciate about her writing.

It’s also nice that the gendering of roles isn’t a really big thing here. Taveth is a housewife, but she chooses that, and her role is central to the functioning of her home. But even a female priest is still just called a priest, not a priestess.

I’ve managed to say all that and say nothing about the plot. It’s a domestic fantasy, although there is also a level on which it is about gods. I think the homelife is as important to the story as the bursts of fighting, and the magic — the bonds between people are, I think, more important, as they are what is under threat. Don’t go into it expecting a big showdown at the end, or something like that.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Hard To Be A God

Cover of Hard to Be A God by Boris and Arkady StrugatskyHard to Be a God, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, trans. Olena Bormashenko

I was fascinated by the sound of this when I came across it in the library, because I really liked Roadside Picnic, and because the foreword mentions parallels with Star Trek and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. However, I found this… pretty much unreadable. There’s a sort of opaqueness I associate with reading Russian novels in translations, but in spades. Supposedly, this translation is much more readable than the old one, which was done via German, but… if that’s the case, I hate to think what the old one was like.

It’s really disappointing, honestly, because the foreword makes it sound interesting, it’s blurbed by Ursula Le Guin, and the parallels mentioned are there. But I couldn’t even hold onto the meaning of the action — why did this character say that, what was the significance of that…

I might try again at some other time, maybe with the other translation, or with some future translation. The setting itself — being fairly traditional-fantasy-esque — doesn’t bother me, and I did, as I said, enjoy Roadside Picnic. Hm.

Rating: 1/5