Review: Gemina

Gemina by Amie Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, folks, they did it again.

Illuminae was, in my humble opinion, one of the finest books published in 2015. As a book in its own right, it ticked every box and then some — how Kristoff and Kaufman managed to cram everything that they did into one book still amazes me, and the philosophical questions it raised via the AI character, Aidan, could go toe-to-toe with some of the “loftiest” of science fiction “classics.”

Oh yeah, and then they threw in everything but the kitchen sink, as if they had a little window into my brain and said: “What are all of the things that Mad wants out of an already visually stunning novel set in space?”


So when I say that these two brilliant humans with imaginations beyond my own comprehension have done it again: oh yes, they’ve done it again.

Gemina could easily be called a “companion” novel as opposed to a proper sequel, but I’d argue that it’s much more a sequel than companion because (a) you completely spoil yourself for who has been left alive at the end of Illuminae — and, trust me, you don’t want that spoiled for you — and (b) because you are left with almost no context as to who organizations like BeiTech or characters like Frobisher are. You can probably figure the basic idea out while you go along, but reading Illuminae before Gemina means that you meet Frobisher on page one and immediately mutter “heinous b****” under your breath…okay, maybe that was just me.

Yes our favourite devil-wearing-neo-Prada is back on the antagonist side of the aisle and this time she brought an entire tactical team with her. Gemina picks up just a little bit after the conclusion of both of Illuminae’s timelines. I think this subtle dual timeline is part of this series’ brilliance. Traditionally in a novel that is, essentially, constructed as a giant (annotated) flashback, things get revealed so that you can, in a way, brace yourself for what’s coming.

Not so much with this book.

Sure, we know something happened at the Heimdall space station. Maybe we even get a name or two dropped so that we can remember some players. But that’s about it: we don’t know precisely what happened, nor do we know who lived, who died, or anything else.

Hook, line, sinker.
Just consider something like that absolute bait for me, the dumbass fish who swims right at it.

We’ve got some new players who are certainly different from Kady, Ezra, AIDAN, and the rest of the Hypatia crew from Illuminae. Hanna and Nik are both well-written and complex characters, but I do think that their lack of a pre-existing romantic history makes their partnership more tenuous than Ezra and Kady’s. My own opinion, and it’s coloured by the fact that Kady and Ezra’s pre-existing romance was one of my favourite aspects of their relationship. Watching two people trying to see if they can come back together is something I find interesting: there’s a history and a whole world of happiness and hurt that’s got to be waded through. Hanna and Nik lack this, although their own personal histories apart from their partnership are both dynamic and well-developed.

Speaking of backstories, without going into any kind of spoilers, I love the glimpses we got of intergalactic organised crime via Nik Malikov, especially since he’s from New Petersburg. Because, guys, we’re talking the vor v zakone in basically everything but that actual name and I am SO DAMN HAPPY. Look, I love me the Italian mafia and all, but my absolute favourite organised crime film is Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises starring Viggo Mortensen, and everything about the House of Knives just oozed the same vibe I got from that film. Which means, of course, I was all on board, most especially for the culture of tattoos as language.

Speaking of the House of Knives…

If AIDAN was the philosophical backbone of Illuminae — the character/plot element that provided the greatest conversation — then the world of the House of Knives and, more accurately, the drug that they provide is the backbone of Gemina. What I consider the best science fiction poses questions and instigates the conversation by creating scenarios, proposing hypotheticals. It doesn’t necessarily have to give any answers, and I’m even more pleased when they don’t.

I could talk about the title, Gemina, but that’s a spoiler game, and I think that the less you really know about this book, the better. Although I will say that, like Illuminae, this novel’s callback to its Latin roots can provide you with some intellectual funtimes (read: wondering WHAT WILL THIS MEAN?) while reading.

And if you’re looking for all that same terror, excitement, tension-riddled, and horrific violence that you got in Illuminae, then have no fear, because Gemina has that in spades. It even pulls out some sneaky little twists along the way — if you want to know who lives, who dies, and who’s helping tell the story, you’ll have to read along to the end and have your brain eaten out by toothed space leeches so that it’s now all over the floor because you can’t handle the level of epic.

It’s fine.

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Random House for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purpose of review**


This is a book I was invited to read, having previously been allowed the privilege to read (and love) an ARC of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, one of my favourite books that I read in 2015. And this book is pitched for lovers of Uprooted as well as Erin Morgenstern’s brilliant novel, The Night Circus. What these two novels both have in common is distinctly lyrical writing styles, enchanting settings and magic, an array of interesting characters, and plots that are, ultimately, playing second fiddle to all of that; they’re magical fairy tale-esque stories that do not require you to look at their plots. In fact, if you do, the entire thing might start to unravel and you’ll suddenly lose the magic.

The Bear and the Nightingale is similar in that regard, though it draws its fairytale from Russia. There is some beautiful writing and an array of characters, including a female protagonist who’s primary adversary in the story is the expectations of the male-dominated culture in which she lives. Every man she encounters views her more as some kind of object than a human being: she is a prize to be won, an animal to be tamed and/or bred — I think we all get the idea. Is it frustrating to read? Yes. Is that the point? Yes. Vasya, our protagonist, has no desire to be viewed this way and spends the majority of the book trying to find a way to make her own way in this world. If there’s one thing I may object to on this point, it’s that the author chooses to describe Vasya like some kind of wild animal — “untamed filly” is used a lot — and when it’s not in the perspective of the men around Vasya, it feels like it undermines the idea that I, as the reader, am not meant to objectify Vasya in this manner. This is a small note, and perhaps it is just me, but I continued to notice this phrase and other’s like it in a way that I found distracting.

The folklore in this story is very well-done; I will tip my hat to the inclusion of a Lord of Frost character because I am a sucker for characters like that. And the instances with the eponymous bear were absolutely wonderful. But this is not a quick book. The fairytale moves at its own pace and I often found myself getting antsy while reading. I do not think this is necessarily a fault of the writing, but more of me, the reader. I like fairytales, don’t get me wrong, but I am not the kind of person who gets particularly excited for every new book that claims to be taking on a fairytale spin — especially since, right now, there seems to be an abundance of those being published each and every day.

If you’re the type of person who loves a fantastical, fairytale-like story, this book is absolutely right up your alley. I recommend reading it on a cold day, wrapped up in a blanket, with a hot cup of tea and some biscuits.

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Review: Ambition

Ambition by Yoshiki Tanaka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very much like the first novel in this series, it earns an additional star point just because of the stunning narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds. His voice talent soars above the generic, overly-linear, and wholly prosaic prose which, in my opinion, runs the risk of undermining this entire literary endeavour.

There is a good story here and fascinating characters taboot, but the writing style is so cut-and-dry that it doesn’t necessarily make for a pleasurable reading experience. You just sort of zip through wondering if you’re ever going to hit the fun part…or at the end.

As long as Reynolds is here to narrate, I’m here to listen, because only his talent for accents and character voices makes this book more interesting than it really is.

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Review: A Torch Against the Night

A Torch Against the Night
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

HAHAHAHAHAHA…this book can go f*** itself.


Actually, no, that’s not true: this is very personal. You see, I am personally offended that this book even exists to try and rot out my braincells with each letter typed in each word in each sentence of each line of each paragraph on each page of this book.

Remember how in my review of An Ember in the Ashes I said that I hoped Ms. Tahir wouldn’t waste the reader’s time by spending any time on rescuing Laia’s brother? Guess what kiddos: THE ENTIRE BLOODYDAMN BOOK IS ABOUT TRYING TO RESCUE LAIA’S BROTHER? I’m sorry, excuse me? Is this one totally insignificant character we never got to know (let alone care about) in the first novel so important that we need to waste the entire second book’s plot on him? (Answer: NO)

But don’t even get me started on the character assassination that goes on in this book, or the overall character inconsistencies at that. I mean, let’s be honest: the characters are so horrifically shallow, we shouldn’t even bother knowing their names. But let’s just run through the tally: Laia is a special snowflake for no reason who doesn’t deserve either of the boys in her love triangle (gag me) to fall for her, who constantly gets into “danger” without any true feeling of threat to her person because she is special snowflake to whom no actual harm will occur, and who basically should have died a long time ago and still serves zero purpose to the narrative. Why is she still here? She ruins Elias’ life; she frequently endangers Elias’ life; and every single terrible thing that happens to Elias in this novel is a direct result of Laia. I hate this girl with a fiery passion that I cannot even come close to properly articulating.

Elias is brooding mope-boy who used to be bad but is now good and (surprise, surprise) is now in love with Laia because predestined-fated-love-romance (kill me) and Tahir obviously doesn’t know what to do with his character now that he’s not playing the role of reluctant hero who could have stayed behind “enemy” lines and been useful to the narrative as a spy. Cool. There’s also the fact he is literally just used as Tahir’s punching bag for this entire novel: he goes from physical to emotional trauma and prisons without respite (thanks, Laia), and never gets a moment to develop and breathe in a way that is not in some way directly tied to him being caused harm. Like…seriously? Your one selfless and brave character who was actually functioning as a half-decent protagonist in your previous book and you’re just going to cause him harm as a direct result of Laia’s actions and make him take all the damage so that Laia doesn’t suffer at all.


And then there’s Helene…the tragedy that is Helene. In my review of Ember I stated that not only was Helene the only worthy character of the entire narrative, she should have been the damn protagonist. She had a definite arc over the course of the novel going from Point A to Point B — even if part of it was wholly unexplained by the end of the book — from both a plot situational standpoint as well as a character developmental standpoint. And then, for this novel, Tahir just throws it all away and sullies this character’s potential. Literally just took a proverbial baseball bat to this character’s head in order to induce brain damage and bring her back as something completely different. How dare you? This was the one “saving grace” (and it was barely that) of Ember and now she’s just thrown onto the pyre of “Things That Make Mad Want To Consider Burning This Book.”

Throw in some more obvious title drops (thanks, Augur), inconsistent character backstories (who was Elias’ baby-daddy again?), a love triangle/square that didn’t need to happen nor should have happened, and nothing — and I do mean absolutely nothing — that I listed as a problem in the first novel was solved in this second, complete with an ending that, had I not been in a bookstore, would have made me fling this book at the wall.

That’s right: I skim-read this book in a bookstore and even that was time in my life that I want back.

And this series (lol remember when it was supposed to be a standalone?) is going to be a quartet.

Kill me. Kill me now. Please.

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Review: Bright Air Black: A Novel

Bright Air Black: A Novel
Bright Air Black: A Novel by David Vann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Grove atlantic for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purpose of review**

I was fully braced to hate this novel; I was fully prepped to love this novel. I was not prepared to be hypnotized by it.

Having grown up in a Classical household — my grandfather is a retired professor of the Classics — and spent many a year and academic class studying the Classics, I am attached ot the stories of the Ancient Greeks to the point of being a very harsh critic. I am picky about which reinterpretations or retellings I read to the point of actively avoiding the majority that are published.

But not Bright Air Black.

You see, this one intrigued me: the Argo and the Golden Fleece, Jason and his Argonauts, Medea and her wrath. It’s a myth I don’t often see tackled in modern adaptations — the Olympians or, at the very least, Troy seem to take th popularity prize there. And not only do we have one of my favourite under-utilized myths, but here we also have the story as told by Medea in the limited 3rd person.

And a present-tense limited 3rd person at that! It lends an almost stream of consciousness quality to the storytelling and creates a rhythm to the reading experience that I’ve yet to encounter in another novel, certainly not one tackling a Greek myth. And yet it truly makes Bright Air Black feel more like some kind fo epic, long-form poem than a modern novel. It’s absolutely wonderful.

If there’s any downside to this stylistic choice, it’s that it does make it more difficult to start and stop the novel, as sinking back into the rhythmic flow takes time and concentration. Rather like meditation, you have to be able to be in the right mindset, prepared to be pulled along on the dark, twisted, tormented ride.

Yeah, it’s emotional and, yeah, it’s tragic.
After all: it’s Greek myth…what did you expect?

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Review: Blood Red Snow White

Blood Red Snow White
Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review to come…**Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

This book is fascinating. It gives the fictionalised account of Arthur Ransome, a young British journalist (and maybe spy?) and how he becomes swept up in the world of Russia during one of the bloodiest and most brutal parts of its history: the Russian Revolution. And yet this novel is not easily classified as a “historical fiction novel” — in the first place, it’s construction is that of three novellas that, while inextricably woven together and linked, are distinct. Secondly, the writing style is not what I’d call “traditional” as it comes to writing historical fiction; in fact Sedgwick tells his story more like a fairy tale than anything else.

And yet the style isn’t jarring or even odd for the subject matter: after all, Ransome did “run away to Russia” in order to collect Russian fairytales for his book. Therefore writing the novel in the style of a fairytale makes the whole thing almost meta in that regard. As if Ransome chose this style he’d chased before in order to recount the story of his own life. The fact that the style works is a testament to Sedgwick’s narrative prowess and beautifully consistent prose. I would almost want to call it whimsical, and perhaps there is a kind of dark whimsy to the entire story, but the harsh realities of the Russian Revolution — the lead up, the event, its aftermath — are never shied away from, and never glossed over in a way that minimizes this bloody bit of history.

While The Ghosts of Heaven will likely remain my favourite book by Sedgwick, Blood Red Snow White stands as a great triumph of a conceptual, stylistic experiment that passes with flying colours to create something unique, heartbreaking, and ultimately, rather enchanting.

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