Capsule Reviews – November 2017

Caine’s Mutiny (Caine Riordan Book 4), by Charles E. Gannon 6.7 (out of 10)
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson 8.2
The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin 9.0
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz 8.5

Caine’s Mutiny, the fourth book in Gannon’s Caine Riordan series, shares a lot of the strengths and flaws of the previous novels. In this entry, Caine and his team travel incognito to a Hkh’Rkh colony planet to investigate reports of renegade Terrans engaging in deadly raids on the population. The truth about the raiding parties unmasks a centuries old conspiracy that threatens the future of the Convocation. Gannon’s compulsive need to explain every possible detail and nuance of every thought, action and decision is a both blessing and a curse: sometimes insightful and revealing, but often just tedious and murky, like he’s talking himself in circles. His affection for the particulars of military strategy, for example, drag out the second half of this very long book almost interminably. Still, even if Gannon’s eccentricities frustrate as often as they charm, the series’ interstellar political machinations pack the usual punch, and its galaxy-trekking tableau is good for some old school thrills.

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Robinson’s epic of the Big Apple – post-climate catastrophe – follows multiple characters living in the same high-rise building. The various storylines converge around the search for two missing residents who may hold the answer to why a real estate group is suddenly trying to buy out the other residents and take over the building. Like all of Robinson’s novels, New York 2140 is peppered with political and economic lectures – some interesting, some tedious. The most transparent flaw in all of Robinson’s fiction is his tendency to engineer his stories to mold whatever message he wants to impart to the reader, and this novel is par for the course (he seems to be aware of this – at one point one of the characters actually points it out). Robinson is also a gifted prose writer and intuitive humanist, and New York 2140 features some of his fleshiest and most sympathetic characters, as well as some of his most thrilling sequences. This novel is worth investing your time, especially if you share some of the same interests as the author.

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In my review for The Obelisk Gate, I wrote that it felt more like the first half of a novel, so I am not surprised that The Stone Sky feels like the second half of that novel. I think I might have preferred if Jemisin had simply released these last to books as a single volume, so I didn’t feel so much like I had to wait a year to read the rest of a book. Some of The Stone Sky feels padded, and in particular the chapters that deal with the origin of the stone eaters could have been saved for a companion novella. Ultimately though, Essun’s journey as a broken woman in a broken world is one of the most compelling in all of fantasy literature, and the conclusion to that journey – where she makes her final stand to repair both the woman and the world – is magnificent.

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Autonomous is the excellent debut novel from lauded science journalist Annalee Newitz. Set in the year 2144, Jack makes her living pirating pharmaceuticals to help people who can’t afford life-saving medication. To pay the bills, she also pirates drugs like Zacuity, a kind of legal speed that is supposed to help people focus at work. She discovers too late that Zaxy, the makers of Zacuity, failed to disclose evidence of potentially deadly side effects that are magnified in people using her pirated version of the drug. Knowing that big pharma will send the authorities to hunt her down, she has precious little time to both find a fix for Zacuity and reveal the truth about Zaxy’s malfeasance. Meanwhile, the cops assigned to find her, Eliasz and his new robot partner Paladin, find themselves succumbing to the normally repressed sexual tension that ripples through the usual buddy-cop flick, as they mow down everyone who stands in their path to Jack.
The world-building alone elevates Autonomous to near-classic status, right down to the details of how semi-autonomous AI interact. The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is certainly the most entertaining of the two main plot threads; their assumptions (or lack therof, in Paladin’s case) about their sexuality are fertile ground for both satire and pathos, which Newitz mines to great effect, even if the action scenes are a little over the top. Jack’s story sags a bit after a terrific start – the midpoint of the novel is wrought with an excess of melancholy flashbacks and moral hand-wringing. Newitz does stick the landing though, as the convergence of their stories makes for a satisfying conclusion.

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