Once More Upon a Time by Roshani Chokshi

Once upon a time, there lived twelve reasonably attractive princesses who, when lined up together, caused such a sight that the world agreed to call them beautiful. And so they were.

Prince Ambrose and Princess Imelda fall in love at her sister’s wedding; her father, being thrifty, asks them to wed the very next day to save on expenses. He gives them a kingdom called Love’s Keep, which will thrive and prosper only as long as its rulers remain in love. Naturally, then, Imelda falls ill; a convenient witch offers to save her life if Ambrose agrees that they will give up their love for each other, thereby damning both Love’s Keep and their marriage. This story begins when Ambrose and Imelda must leave Love’s Keep, that barren land. Before they part ways forever (unclear on why they every wound up together in the first place), a different witch (at least I think it was a different witch?) appears and offers them a quest. The point of the quest is not for them to fall in love again, but stranger things have happened on quests. The estranged king and queen, then, set off through strange lands, to have adventures and meet wild beasts, cannibals, and a horse cloak that thinks it’s a horse. What will they find, and lose?

I am much intrigued by this deceptive little tale, which seems simple on its surface but (as so often!) contains depths. Both prince and princess have some hangups, some baggage, some triggers. Both have put up defensive mechanisms that limit their access to joy and love, and this is not the usual material of prince-and-princess fairy-tale romances, but it is the material of real life. I love that this princess has a trigger about the objects that have been used in her past as a means to exert control, to tie her to the earth. And in a classic miscommunication, her prince’s attempt to use that very mechanism to free her will be misinterpreted – as can happen when we establish less-than-rational associations. There is a question built in throughout as to where love comes from, and whether it can be regained once lost. What is really the obstacle to the success of the relationship and of Love’s Keep? Imelda fears that even in her joy,

This feeling will trap you. There is no freedom in this.

Is love a trap? Can one be safe in love?

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

Love made no promise to stay, to put down roots.

Later,

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

But there was no love in trusting that truth either.

As ever (and echoing that recent read, Everything, Everything), these things only work if you take a risk that they won’t.

You think it’s lust, but it’s not. It’s bravery. To close distances. To take the raw, beating part of you and hold it up to the light.

A romance, yes, but a far more pragmatic one than fairy tales tend to be. At only 133 pages, it’s an easy and absolutely joyful read. Also, please note that Imelda goes around saving Ambrose’s tail more than vice versa. I’d never heard of Roshani Chokshi but will have to find more.


Rating: 8 apples, naturally.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s that time again: due to life in general and reading-related issues, I’m taking us back to two posts a week for the foreseeable. They will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Sorry & thanks for your continued interest!


Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

randomly chosen atmospheric cover (I read a free ebook from Project Gutenberg)

I didn’t have a terribly successful read, but now I know. I’m going to say that this one didn’t age as well as some writers of James’s era. Two central concerns are sentences and what we fear. First, James’s habit of complex syntax and copious strung-together clauses drove me nuts. I found it quite distracting and frequently had to reread to follow the logic of comma-packed sentences. Check out this completely typical (not extreme) example:

At the hour I now speak of she had joined me, under pressure, on the terrace, where, with the lapse of the season, the afternoon sun was now agreeable; and we sat there together while, before us, at a distance, but within call if we wished, the children strolled to and fro in one of their most manageable moods.

There’s a style there that just doesn’t work for me, and I’ll wager works for few modern readers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even after I’d puzzled through the sentences: The Turn of the Screw is a horror story, but it no longer horrifies. Reading this book was like waiting for the jump scare that never comes. [Spoilers follow, although I’ll not share the ending.] A governess takes charge of two charming children at an impressive country estate: the little girl who is supposed to be her pupil, and the slightly older boy sort of by accident, when he is expelled from boarding school. Our protagonist can’t understand why, because he (like his sister) is perfect, angelic, cherubic, just the sweetest and smartest etc., etc. But then she has a few sinister sightings of two individuals, man and woman, who turn out to be the ghosts, respectively, of a former servant and the last governess. These two committed the incredible sin of having a romantic and sexual relationship even though they were not only unmarried but (gasp) of different social backgrounds. The idea of who is a “gentleman” (and how we can tell by looking at him) is of great importance. Perhaps you can imagine that this just doesn’t impress me; I couldn’t muster any outrage.

The ghosts have some sort of influence over our dear angelic children, who thereby become sinister by association, although they don’t actually do anything bad beyond wandering around unsupervised. This is no Orphan. In general, ho hum.

(There is also an interesting bit of story-within-the-story here: we open with a bunch of Victorians at a country home for a long weekend, where the governess’s story itself is introduced and then read aloud. I’m always intrigued by this narrative device. We never return to the country weekend, so it doesn’t perhaps do the work it might have done for this book.)

My friend Vince teaches a class on horror films and literature, and he could speak to all of this more effectively than I can, but I recall him saying something about how different eras in horror reflect what we feared at a societal level at each point in time. Here, James is clearly concerned with the innocence of children (and the terrifying lack thereof), and class distinctions. That’s my fairly surface-level read, and frankly, it’s as deep as I feel motivated to go. My friend Liz points out that Stephen King has “ruined” (depending on your position) all the horror that came before, by figuring how how to really terrify us. She’s probably right, too. She cites Frankenstein: the modern reader approaches that classic novel looking for a fright that just never surfaces. I’d say that’s a finer novel than this one, though.

Somewhat in James’s defense, I did finish this novella, after faltering in the middle, because I wanted to see what happened. That’s good for something. The ending held a note of some profundity. Still can’t recommend it, except as an act of completionism, if you want to get a good historical grasp of this genre. Next challenge: what horror story of a similar era is still scary?


Rating: 6 commas, which (on theme) might be one too many, but credit for James’s long influence.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

This is book six, the final to date, in the Murderbot Diaries series. I am very relieved to learn that there are three more books to come, because I am not done with this fascinating character.

Fugitive Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as developed in the latter, but there’s still a lot to love here. Murderbot is living uneasily on Preservation Station, and there has been (gasp) a murder, which never happens here, and therefore the regular security forces aren’t really equipped for an investigation. Our favorite bot construct gets drafted (that is, asked nicely by Dr. Mensah) to help out, but (predictably) it doesn’t love working with the security forces, and the feeling is mutual. Murderbot has also been asked to not hack any systems, a promise I’m a little surprised it keeps; this hamstrings its investigative efforts somewhat, and takes us into the realm of more classic detective work. That’s the premise of an excellent review by NPR of this book, and indeed they’ve done so well with it that I’m linking you there in lieu of my own longer review. Check it out: “Murderbot meets Miss Marple in Fugitive Telementry.”

I love everything that happens here, but I remain anxious for a sequel to Network Effect. I want more Amena and more ART and more Murderbot in general. I’m just glad it’s happening.


Rating: 7 limbs.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Book four of the Murderbot Diaries is proceeding pretty much as I’d hoped. We’ve got some returning serial characters, and further development of the idea that bots are people, too. Check out that blurb from the front cover: “One of the most humane portraits of a nonhuman I’ve ever read” (from Annalee Newitz). I wholly agree, and think that that’s one of the great victories of this series. Murderbot is drily funny, self-deprecating, sarcastic, deeply feeling and resistant to the truths of its own emotional self, and who among us hasn’t wished we were a little more stoic, a time or two?

[Side note: something new has just occurred to me. I think Murderbot and Reacher have a few things in common. Both try to mind their own business, but both are helpless to resist helping dumb humans in need, even as they feel exasperation about it. Both have superhuman abilities, not only in physical fighting but in quick calculations on the fly and strategic thinking. (Only Murderbot has a good explanation for these qualities.) Both have a tendency to be delightfully deadpan. Both try to slip out into the night when things get wrapped up. They’re both sort of knights-errant, preferring not to hurt innocent bystanders but reasonably quick to upgrade (downgrade?) a person’s status to hostile as situations develop. These are qualities I appreciate, and I think there’s a definite parallel here that helps explain my love for both rogue elements.]

“Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it.” Even the drones are given emotions: confused, sad. The idea of humanizing the nonhuman feels like a helpful step in rehumanizing each other, too. These books star a murderbot who is not human though it has ‘organic parts,’ and who is not legally recognized as a person in most of the worlds it travels in, but it has human friends from a world where bots and human/bot constructs are legally recognized. Can it even see itself living in this new way? In the midst of a fight to the death, our protagonist offers a deadly CombatBot the option to be free from outside control. “…dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will. I’m not sure it would have worked on me, before my mass murder incident. I didn’t know what I wanted (I still didn’t know what I wanted) and when you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying.” These are weighty questions, and Murderbot is an excellent guide to them: snarky, hard-shelled, but soft and melty on the inside.

I continue to love the thread in which Murderbot is an entertainment media addict, too. Aside from being unexpected and hilarious, as it was from the outset, it also offers opportunities to think about its future career options (recall I just recently noted its wisdom in critiquing narratives), as well as how stories and characters speak to us, and what they can stand in for. Here, a human friend asks Murderbot what the media does for it, why it loves its favorite show so much (that’s The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I sincerely hope will appear as a spinoff someday). This allows it to think about its own possible personhood, and empathy. There is a lot going on in this series of slim scifi novellas, a lot of reach. I am increasingly excited about the progress to come. (I am also feeling pleased with some of my own predictions.)

I hope Martha Wells is off somewhere writing more Murderbot right now. I expect to get through the last two books soon.


Rating: 8 hard currency cards.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!


Rating: 7 core samples.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

These Murderbot Diaries are going down way too easily; Martha Wells is not writing quickly enough! Wonderful fun. After book one, All Systems Red, it felt great to see our murderbot again, still addicted to entertainment media and wishing it could just be left alone to take in its favorite shows and not have to communicate with humans. (“I liked humans, I liked watching them on the entertainment feed, where they couldn’t interact with me. Where it was safe. For me and for them.”) There was never such a loveable, socially awkward creature. It’s the genius of this series that this protagonist is not human, but has all the personality and foibles we want in our favorite human characters. “When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” “I wish being a construct made me less irrational than the average human but you may have noticed this is not the case.”

In this installment, the murderbot has its own agenda for the first time ever, arranging for its own travel (only a little bit under false pretenses) and going looking for answers to a mystery it wants solved for its own sake. It runs into trouble when the research transport ship it hitches a ride with turns out to be a bit smarter and more sentient than our hero had bargained on. This is either going to be the murderbot’s first friend or next enemy. Also, to get onto the moon it’s headed for, it needs an employment pass, and so it needs employment, which (again) it’s never arranged for itself. This is how it ends up with another group of humans to care for, which raises some of the same concerns that it did in book one.

Where it took me a little while to get into All Systems Red, this one had me in its grasp from minute one (maybe because I understood the world I was stepping into). I’m smitten. These stories are short, funny, and moving. I want them all.


Rating: 8 facial expressions.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Thanks Liz for this fun recommendation, a bit off my usual path, but right in line with The Expanse (remember that series?!). The Murderbot Diaries is a series of sci-fi novellas; book one, All Systems Red, was an easy single-sitting read. I found it took me a little while to engage. The story begins in media res, which has its advantages, but in this case left me a little murky on some of the situational details and I think delayed my reader-brain clicking into gear. Partly this feels like a sci-fi issue (in media res maybe works less well here, where the reader needs to learn the rules of your world?) and partly, as usual, I’m sure it’s a me issue, because I’m not a very experienced sci-fi reader and it’s been a while since I’ve read any.

But once I clicked in I was decidedly engaged. The story is told in first-person (something of the ‘diary’ effect) by a creature who calls itself Murderbot. It’s a SecUnit (security unit) for ‘the company,’ which has been rented out to a survey team doing scientific work on an unsettled planet. (Some features of this world are very similar to that of The Expanse.) It opens quite intriguingly:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

What is special about Murderbot is this fact, that it has hacked its governor module and therefore has personal agency, which is unusual among its kind. The humans and augmented humans that it works for don’t know this. It has to remember to appear to be following the rules. But the first odd surprise is contained in that first sentence, too: rather than undertake some evil genius scheme, our Murderbot is most interested in vegging out and binging some telenovelas. (It is forever waiting for the humans to take a break so it can watch tv, basically.) This is unexpected, endearing, a little absurd, and very human, despite the Murderbot being not human. It is a ‘construct,’ containing both organic and inorganic parts; perhaps roughly half human and half bot, although it resists that framing. “It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do.” Again, sounds awfully human. “I know I said SecUnits aren’t sentimental about each other, but I wished it wasn’t one of the DeltFall units. It was in there somewhere, trapped in its own head, maybe aware, maybe not. Not that it matters. None of us had a choice.”

In fact, Murderbot’s kind of lazy and a little negligent. “I don’t know… because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.” When its assigned team of humans gets into trouble, it has to admit that it didn’t even read the info packet that came with this contract, and has no idea who its team is. (It deleted that file to free up storage space for entertainment files. I am tickled by our tv-addicted SecUnit.)

There is an adventure with the humans; there is danger and action and intrigue. But this is all backdrop for the human drama, by which I mean the humans on the assigned team and, primarily, Murderbot navigating its relationship to the humans. We get to know the protagonist a little bit, begin to see it reveal personality (very begrudgingly) and loyalties, even perhaps desires. This world has more than a few elements in common with that of The Expanse, but also, that human drama at the heart of things is what appeals to me in both cases. At the end of this very quick read, Murderbot has an opportunity open up; and then cliffhanger. I’m absolutely in for the next one.


Rating: 7 little hoppers.

Auberon by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Early in listening to this novella, I was pleased to be returned to the world of Corey’s imagination (and guided by the familiar reading voice of Jefferson Mays, thank goodness). By the time I looked up and saw that it was half over, I felt a little perplexed by the failure of the plot to draw me in. By the end, I felt frankly disappointed. It was a mildly entertaining return to the worlds of The Expanse, and I do not regret it, but this installment is not a stand-out. I recommend it for completist fans only; Auberon is not a good representation of the extraordinary power of this series.

Auberon is a recently settled planet, even more recently under the control of the far-reaching arm of Laconia. The novella begins when Laconian Governor Rittenaur arrives to take power, hoping to establish a firm but not abusive government. His wife, Dr. Mona Rittenaur, is to take over research operations. In an early scene (and one of the more gripping ones), a sinister older man named Erich with one bionic arm threatens the new Governor, referring to an old Earth western frontier tale: “silver or lead?” he asks, meaning will this leader be purchased by bribe or take a bullet? In the end it is a different vulnerability entirely that will expose Rittenaur to the forces on Auberon.

I found Erich’s scenes (and the bionic arm itself) the most compelling parts of this story. The characters of Governor and Dr. Rittenaur, and the moral challenges they each face, were perhaps meant to be the central and most moving bits, but I found they both fell a little flat, perhaps for lack of development. The original/central foursome of The Expanse–Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex–captured my heart completely (and make the whole series work), because they are complex, loveable but conflicted, deeply, fully developed as characters with backstories. A little more investment in the Rittenaurs might have made this novella work, but such is the challenge of the novella-length story. (For the record, Corey has sometimes knocked this shorter format out of the park. Just not here.) For me, Auberon didn’t really work. It was a fine few hours, but like I said, I don’t especially recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next Expanse novel or novella, though! This one just whetted my appetite again.


Rating: 6 automatic movements.

Gods of Risk by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Another novella in The Expanse series, this one only glancingly including one of our main characters. David Draper is sixteen years old, a gifted chemistry student working long hours in the lab waiting to find out what career/study path he’ll be placed on next. He’s also gotten himself involved with some less savory types, manufacturing illicit drugs in his spare lab time, for spending money but even more for the connections and sense of belonging. One connection he makes will end up getting him into a boatload of trouble, of course. And when things really get serious, surely you can guess who will be there: his Aunt Bobbie, who’s mostly been present in his life as an annoyance, hanging out in his house watching the news feed and lifting weights. (This novella falls between the timelines of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

Gods of Risk is not one of Corey’s greatest works, but it’s an absorbing short tale, and it was amusing to see Bobbie through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how to value her. I listened to the whole thing (read by Erik Davies, but less annoyingly than usual) on the way to and from a bike ride, in a single day, and it held my attention; it’s not much of a contribution to the larger world of The Expanse, but that’s okay. David is a convincing teenager, making poor choices and underestimating certain adults, worshiping the wrong gods, if you will; but his heart is essentially in the right place, as a (slightly over-sappy) final talk with Aunt Bobbie points out. This novella also gives us a bit more background into one of the Martian worlds. Worth the time? Of course! if you’re a completist series fan like me. I’m glad for every bit of this world that I can get, as I head into the eighth novel (for now, the last full-length edition in the series).


Rating: 7 issues with mass transit.
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