The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Through a freak set of circumstances, an astronaut is abandoned on Mars when the rest of his NASA crew departs. Now he has to survive.

Ahaha, okay.

Things this book doesn't care about: Doing the omniscient POV well; doing epistolary well; giving characters anything more complex than the most obvious, primary-colored emotions; the actual psychological experience of being left alone on Mars to die.

Things this book cares about: How to extract hydrogen and create your own water molecules from scratch OMG.

This was a lot of fun, and compulsively readable in places. But let's get real here: I can see exactly why this book was self-published for lack of an agent, and simultaneously why Crown later acquired it (though I am baffled as to why, during the editing process, they didn't sit Weir down and have a long, firm talk with him about how jaw-droppingly terrible the last few paragraphs of the book are. Seriously, they're seventh-grade essay about the nature of mankind bad. It's like telling someone their fly is unzipped – it's embarrassing, but someone has to do it). Anyway, this is a cool space survival piece with loving (and fascinating!) descriptions of growing potatoes on Mars and orbital mechanics calculations sprinkled with occasional quips, and really disinterested or just incompetent everything else.

Basically, I really dug this. But I actually bet myself halfway through that this was going to be made into a movie, and yep, I was right. Starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, which, uh-huh. And I just . . . look. Being able to spot a book that a major studio is going to snap up for adaptation? That isn't actually a compliment. That usually means the book is a good adrenaline vehicle with only cut-outs of human beings in it, where the emotional arc – such as it is – can go comfortably down in one small swallow and be immediately forgotten. And . . . yeah.

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Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Further adventures of the angry former spaceship and assorted imperial doings.

This was . . . unchallenging is the word a friend used, and it is exactly the right one. Like, this book kept presenting the most digestible, high-contrast depictions of inequity, and I kept waiting for the onion layers to peel back on it and . . . no . . . apparently the arc of justice bends towards the completely freaking obvious. Like, okay, slave labor by another name is, indeed, unjust. But positing that is not interesting to me as a reader and, more importantly, did not challenge any of the characters as they revolved neatly through this little social justice playlet. Which is part of what makes the book go, actually – there's something awful about how cartoonishly blatant the evil is here, and yet how many characters still can't see it and can't be taught to see it. But we spent so long talking at length about the obvious injustice of captive labor that we didn't seem to have time to delve into the more complex and insidious ways the power structure reinforces itself. The stuff that really gets people where they're rooted, because it's what they're rooted in.

Anyway. I'm selling this book short, to be honest. It has long, charming stretches of angry former spaceship who is baffled by these monkeys, and there are two contrasting subplots about identity that are extensions of how the first book dealt with the expanded self on multiple levels from the personal to the societal, and other stuff that I liked. But there was just something so primary color crayon about most of the sociological plot, and . . . eh.

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Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant, #5)Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So when the summary of this book came out – Peter goes to the countryside – I assumed it would be a monster-of-the-week book. And it is, though clearly also a lot of setup. Which is actually the salient feature of this book – it convinced me that Aaronovitch hasn't even put all his pieces on the board yet, let alone started moving them.

So anyway. Yes, this book suffers from a tragic deficit of Nightingale. And also a tragic deficit of London, a character in her own right. And yes, the ending is abrupt as hell. (And speaking of, apparently only the Waterstones edition has the short story epilogue? I can only assume to boost special edition sales. What is this dead tree bullshit, I ask you?)

But, Peter is still Peter. And there actually is enough architecture in the country for him to geek over. And the occasionally slow march of this book's rather obvious plot was interrupted, every fifty pages or so, by Peter wham breaking my heart out of nowhere. So yeah. Still worth it.

P.s. This book does present an obvious theory about the Faceless Man's identity/origins, which is so obvious I can only assume it's not true? We'll see.

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In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.

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The Witch With No Name (The Hollows, #13)The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Welp. I stuck it out to the end. What do I win? Is the prize that I get back however many hours of my life I spent reading this series?

I kid! Mostly. This book qua book is kind of a disaster. It's indistinguishable from the last half dozen books, except that it has a "twenty five years later" epilogue to let you know that we're done. And it suffers from that worst of afflictions that a fantasy novel can contract: metaphysics. You know, the thing where the magic has become so high order that it all occurs within the mind or on a higher plane or whatever, and the writing about it becomes laughably bad.

But. This actually was a seminal text in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre (no, it really was). And I feel a grim accomplishment for having stuck with it. Because if nothing else, this series and it's perpetual sameness was an annual measuring stick for me. I came to consciousness as a reviewer – which for me, is almost synonymous with coming to consciousness as a reader – over the run of this series. So would I like those hours back? Would I happily scrub my brain of the enumerable "I shouted" and "I sobbed" dialogue tags (seriously, Rachel shouts and she sobs, she never . . . y'know . . . talks). Yes I would. But I also wouldn't, because this series didn't really get smaller, I got bigger. So now I know.

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Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels, #7)Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this at the very end of pregnancy, which was just a few weeks ago but might as well be another country. But I remember enough to know I was deeply bored by this: battle, running, battle, shipping, battle, battle. The thing is, this series has a refreshing brutality. That's actually a compliment – the shit that happens to the heroine is genuinely frightening (without going instantly to rape!) and it's treated with the proper respect and gravity, with this cool understanding that you keep moving, even with your trauma. Except the problem is? The romance is cast as, like, a refuge from all that. The whole port in a storm, your back against mine sort of thing. Which is great! Right up my alley!

…Too bad the dude in question is obnoxious, clichéd, and boring. Ugh, with the very worst of the possessive animal behaviors thing. And I know, I know I keep harking on this, but werelion, guys.

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Abhorsen (Abhorsen, #3)Abhorsen by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Talking about Lirael and Abhorsen together as they are in reality one book cut in half, probably to keep the length down for young adult readers (remember when we did that?). Two young people – an introverted and depressed magical librarian, and a prince trapped in familial expectations – find each other in order to battle an ancient evil.

These books reminded me of Fullmetal Alchemist (can't quite put my finger on it, but a similar sense of eerie morbidity around young people exercising power) and more strongly of Diana Wynne Jones (an unflinching, genuinely frightening story leavened with talking animal humor). Needless to say, I liked these books. They have a richness to them, which is a funny thing to say when I point out that they are incredibly economical with worldbuilding. Characters frequently pass back and forth over an ancient wall – staffed by military forces – which divides a magical kingdom from a nonmagical country (well, except when the north wind blows strongly). The book leans heavily on the wall and the divide, thematically, and the history of the wall is intimately tied up with the ultimate climax. But do we learn more than a few scraps about its construction? Nope. Nix has mastered that trick of creating magic and mystery in the blank spaces.

But mostly, I wanted to say that I will be thinking about the role of death in these books for a while. It's one of those universes where the true horror of death is not dying, but that you might come back. That changes the entire shape of the thing in complicated ways. Some of them remove drama from the story – at a certain point, various protagonists' miraculous survival or resurrection becomes expected – but it also adds a bit of strange mystery, a sense of the truly alien in the fantastic.

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Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)Sabriel by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Young woman leaves boarding school to enter the mysterious kingdom of her birth in search of her missing necromancer (sort of) father.

So I'm, like, years late on this one, but a decade later, I would like to assure you all that you were totally right, this is a great series! This first book is a bit wandery in places – you can sort of see him figuring out what he's doing – but it has something. I think it's that this series makes a lot of the usual moves – talking cat, death of a trusted adult, etc. – but it does them with this . . . eeriness, I guess. Some books have a sense for the numinous; this book has a sense for that dart of cold that shoots down your spine.

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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.

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Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Third in this loose trilogy about the soldier/mercenary/criminal re-sleeved into a new body, this time back on his home planet, and the revolutionary politics he stumbles into.

Disappointing. I enjoyed this trilogy because the scifi future it envisions – consciousness stored on neural stacks that can be installed in successive lab-grown bodies – allowed for discussions of cognition and agency and biology, which I dig. This book, though -- *shakes head*. This is an overlong "gritty" slog, and by "gritty" you can fill in lots of artistically dead women for the purpose of making the protagonist feel bad, and repeated violent set pieces with no purpose but to be violent. Honestly, this read like the shooting script of a blockbuster I would assiduously avoid ever seeing. Blech.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epic fantasy of the street urchin with great powers joins a thieving crew intent on overthrowing the evil empire variety. Y'know.

Entertaining in a juvenile and rather clumsy way. This series was sold to me as having a "really original" magic system. Uh . . . no. Some of the finer details – powers granted by digesting certain metals – might be unique, but when you come right down to it, this is the sort of writing about magic where I keep expecting a pop-up window in the middle of the text that says, "to activate this power, hold down the B button and push the joystick forward." I was also told this series is "philosophical," which is painfully not the case either. Well, unless you consider the investigation of such deep and interesting questions as, "Are all rich people evil or just some of them?" to be philosophical.

So it is nothing I was told, but still entertained me in a brainless sort of way.

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Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four women – a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor – are sent into the mysterious Area X to investigate after the failure of eleven other expeditions. Shit gets weird.

Yeah, I just don't dig Weird as a genre, with the notable exception of Kelly Link. This book is all about what the Weird is about – infiltrating consciousness with inexplicable but somehow still meaningful memes – and I just . . . don't . . . care. Our narrator has been stripped of her name and parts of her identity; the book explores her personal isolation as it tells an entirely unresolved and unexplained story of the powers running wild in Area X, and how they eat people alive and transform them. All the expected moves are here: you've got your sudden deaths, your forebodingly inexplicable writings on the wall, your encounters with the still living but altered remains of former colleagues, etc. I don't know, for a genre so intent on the operation of the strange on the consciousness, the Weird is just so damn obvious.

I don't even need an explanation – the Weird can supply one or it can't, in my experience, because the explanation is largely irrelevant to the project of Weird. Which is, you know . . . being weird. This book doesn't supply a single explanation. There are two others in the trilogy that might, but . . . eh.

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The Dickens With LoveThe Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

M/M Christmas novella about the antiquarian book dealer with a tragical past and the British professor selling a lost Dickens book. Cute, with all the expected grace notes – deception, misunderstanding, self-hatred, the sort of resolution where everything works out because people just spontaneously decide to trust each other. So, you know, fine.

But man oh man, don't read Josh Lanyon for the porn. Don't get me wrong, at his best (which this is not) he's totally worth the investment for the depth of character and emotional range. But there's something so very dated about his style of sex scene -- the writing gives me intense nostalgia for late 90's fanfic, back when everyone was still scared of using the word 'penis.' And by dated, I mean hilarious.

That pump and pull was like a hammer striking the golden frame of angel wings, pounding them into shining, glinting pennants. Perspiration sheened our bodies, and our breath grew harsher as we bent our backs and worked this forge. And then the wings began to beat, trying to take flight, moving faster and faster, and we seemed to lift right off the ground, right off the pillows and bedding and hang there, transfixed as warm white halle freakin lujah surged through.


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The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister, #1)The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

He's a duke with a rather obnoxious case of the privilege guilts. She's an apparently timid young lady whose tragic past, for once, has nothing to do with illegitimate children. They do exactly what you think they are going to do.

A lot of my friends rave about Courtney Milan. I thought this book was okay, if not spectacular (the duke's aforesaid angst about the terribleness of being so wealthy and powerful grated on my nerves, but ymmv). And I really think a book with a reference to war in the title and a setup promising a competition should have . . . you know . . . more competition. But that's just me being disgruntled because I love romances where the leads spend the whole time attempting to best each other, and this said it was that but really was not.

But what I meant to say is, the entire book was saved by the wedding night sex. Which, first time through, was terrible. Ahahaha, I love it. And our heroine is flat out like, "no, you totally did that wrong, that can't be it." The whole book was worth that.

Not sure where to jump to next in her catalog – thoughts?

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EchopraxiaEchopraxia by Peter Watts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Follows Blindsight, which was that hard scifi first encounter space horror novel arguing – rather revolutionarily at the time, less so now – that consciousness (the singular I self) is an evolutionary mistake, and a costly one.

Blindsight was interesting as hell; this book less so. As Watts himself says in the end matter, "Echopraxia is to autonomy as blindsight is to consciousness" (and if you can follow that, you are officially his target audience). He's referring to the conditions, but of course it also applies to the books. Watts himself admits that the examination of autonomy in an age of neuro programming isn't terribly interesting. It's not, particularly compared to Blindsight's genuinely mind-expanding concepts.

And what this book is doing, I don't think it does terribly well. It's what Watts calls "faith-based hard SF" – a future which posits that certain types of advancements in physics require a return to religious frameworks and a melding with science. Watts has some interesting tidbits in his notes (the notes being my favorite part of any Watts book) about what religious belief does to the brain. Makes it better at pattern-matching, for one. Which is interesting and all, but I never thought this faith/science meld went beyond some suggestive imagery (hive-minded monks speaking science revelations in tongues) and a lot of wordplay about God. It just didn't . . . well, honestly. It just didn't ever make more than "that's a nice party trick" sense.

Still. Being able to identify God as a virus running in a universe ruled by a digital physics model is fun. And I give points for the effort here, and the endeavor. It just ain't Blindsight.

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The Ninth Circle (Tour of the Merrimack, #5)The Ninth Circle by R.M. Meluch

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Right, it's been a while, so as a refresher, this is the military scifi series where the Roman Empire went underground for a few thousand years, only to re-emerge in the space age and set up a whole new empire in opposition to the U.S. in space, and then a lot of homoerotic things happened. Got that? Good.

I stress-read the first few books in this series and enjoyed the hell out of them. You know, where you make a Cartesian plane with good/bad on one axis and enjoyable/not enjoyable on the other – this series was waaaay deep in the bad/enjoyed quadrant. But we've been through a few twists and turns, killed off some major characters, sent others off to get married to a random, and it turns out the enjoyable was coming from a very specific scenario, and when you erase that, well.

What you're left with is Meluch's politics (pro-military to the point of jingoism), her series-long disdain for civilian peacekeeping forces turned up to eleven, and this really awful moment where I realized she's genuinely interested in a bunch of teenaged boys who deliberately set out to become spree killers because daddy didn't love one of them enough (no, for real, that's his actual reason). There's also a lot of frankly weird back-and-forth about how the right-thinking people can recognize a hostile species on sight (it's . . . genetic? Apparently? Evil aliens just look . . . wrong?) but those stupid scientists, they want to talk to the ugly aliens before starting a shooting war and don't recognize the superiority of the cute aliens, what bullshit.

Blech. Someone let me know if she resurrects the bio-engineered vicious Roman genius. Otherwise, I'm out.

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The Magician's Land (The Magicians, #3)The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well that was . . . disappointing. Which is a funny thing to say about a book written as well as this one, and that made me as happy as this one did at certain points (really, I would read hundreds of pages about the magic in this universe and how it works and doesn't, no plot required).

The thing is, this book doubled down. The series as a whole has been playing with coming of age narratives and coming into power narratives, trying out different ones, contrasting them, complicating them. And then this final book just . . . plays it straight. I was worried by the jacket copy which, in my edition, actually says something about "a boy becoming a man." Okay, but not really, I thought, that's just stupid marketing nonsense.

Guys. This book is about a boy becoming a man, and what that means for a boy who loves magic and stories about it. Really. Like, this book actually thinks Quentin is interesting (he is, in flashes, but come on, not really). It is actually invested in Quentin's angst over not being quite as special as he thought he would be. And then it's really interested in having a little interlude about how very special he truly is – no one loves fantasy literature like Quentin, apparently, to the point where the universe takes notice. For real.

Here's the thing. In every book of this trilogy, I found myself thinking at least once, okay, but why aren't we reading a book about her? It's always a her, and she's always interesting as hell, and her story is always more complicated and harrowing and difficult than Quentin's. In the second book, we did actually get to read about her, thank you very much, and it's no coincidence that book is my favorite. In this book, we don't get to read about her. And I would much, much rather have been. Because as this book was winding up, delivering a few thematic statements and the like, I just kept saying, wait, really? You're really . . . going with that? That's what this has all been for? We did all this to talk about the hero's journey of . . . getting over the ennui of being really lucky and privileged?

But as I said to my girlfriend, you can object to a lot of what Grossman is doing, but it's harder to object to how he's doing it. I really would read Grossman on magic for books and books. A sample:

And lately, they'd [books] begun to breed. Shocked undergraduates had stumbled on books in the very act. Which sounded interesting, but so far the resulting offspring had been predictably derivative –in fiction – or stunningly boring – nonfiction. Hybrid pairings between fiction and nonfiction were the most vital. The librarian thought that the problem was just that the right books weren't breeding with each other, and proposed a forced mating program. The library committee had an epic secret meeting about the ethics of literary eugenics, which ended in a furious deadlock.

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Smoke and Shadows (Tony Foster #1)Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Trilogy about a gay production assistant on a, by all appearances quite terrible, Canadian vampire detective show.

Hey, check it out, these are books I actually finished!

So, I could just say 'too much boyfriend: not enough production assistanting,' and leave it at that. But actually I don't think that really gets at the problem.

These are quirky, well-intentioned, fun little books about a former street hustler turned PA turned wizard. I remember people talking excitedly about them ten years ago, the way we did when we had so little commercial LGBT fiction to read, let alone genre fiction. But the thing is, even if I hadn't checked the copyright dates, I could have accurately dated these books by the shape of the romance.

See, this is one of those 'gay guy falls for beautiful unattainable straight guy' stories, except oh wait maybe he's not so straight – oh wait he totally is – touch me – touch me not, where the allegedly straight dude plays mind games and is generally an all-around dick, but hey it's cool guys, finding out you like guys is really hard okay. And you just don't see that much in LGBT fiction anymore. At least not played for romance, as it is here.

I'm tempted to make some sweeping statements about cultural esthetics of queerness, and how allegedly straight dude's convulsions and reversals and spewings of internalized homophobia are actually a larger commentary on the place of queerness in the general psyche, or in genre fiction. And I think that's pointed in the right direction, though it's painting with too broad strokes. I mean, there's a reason the esthetics of queer romance shift over time – when's the last time you read an actual we're not gay we just love each other story written in 2014? But that was, like, the narrative of the 90's – the trappings of queerness without ever having to use the word. The shifts over time reflect the cultural reckoning that a lot of straight writers were doing with queerness, and it's not as if queer writers like Huff are immune to the tides.

Anyway, my point being that the particular esthetic of queer romance in these books is pretty uncomfortable to read now. It was better when I flipped gears to read as historical document, but still. Yikes.

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The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Post food apocalypse scifi with tremendously original and genuinely frightening world building.

DNF, and right on the verge of finishing, too. I've just swapped audiobook players, meaning I lost my place in everything on the SD card, and yeah, okay, three years later it's probably time to admit I'm never going to finish this. I wouldn't bother saying anything about it because I don't remember much aside from repeatedly thinking how great his short stories are and how badly constructed the novel was, and how he should go back to shorts.

Except that I apparently left myself a note attached to the file, and that note says:

Robot rape for emotional effect/robot rape complicit in sexualized violence?

And you guys. I got nothing. Three years ago me, I'm glad you had apparently deep thoughts about robot rape?

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Grimspace (Sirantha Jax, #1)Grimspace by Ann Aguirre

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

DNF. Hard-bitten lady space navigator is broken out of prison for blah blah revolution adventures.

#Thatthingwhere a bunch of people are excited about a new science fiction series written by and featuring a woman, and you try it because you try that sort of thing, and then . . . no.

It takes chops to pull off first person present tense for an entire novel. I mean, you've got the uphill battle of convincing me that the book isn't actually stitched together emo wailings of a sixteen-year-old Tumblr user who writes in first person present the same way my teenaged generation put safety pins in our jeans – it's edgy, yoe. Spoiler: these ain't those chops.

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