Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Turing's Imitation Game

Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown - Kevin Warwick, Huma Shah

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

That was an informative, albeit also controversial, read about Turing’s ‘Imitation Game’, focused on the game itself rather than on the man (who I like reading about in general, but here I was definitely more interested in his famous ‘test’, since I keep hearing about it, but never in much detail). It sheds light on Turing’s aim when devising the test, as well as on what he predicted, and that may or may not happen sooner than expected.

Several sections in the book are devoted to examples of studies and events during which the test took place, pitching human judges against both machines and other human beings, without the former knowing what or who the latter was. Actual, textual examples allow the reader to try and make their own judgment—and determining where the machines are is not so easy as it seems. I was accurate in my guesses except but once, I think, however I can see where judges were ‘fooled’, and why. At other times, I was surprised at the outcome, for instance quite a few human participants made ‘boring’ answers to conversations, which in turn prompted judges to believe they were talking to a machine—and conversely, some AIs were clearly programmed with a variety of lively potential responses. Eugene Goostman, especially, with its persona of a 13-year old Ukrainian boy whose English is only second language, has good potential (in that you can tell some of its/his answers are stilted, but not more than if it/he was an actual learner of ESOL).

The test as a whole posits several interesting questions and conundrums. Namely, the fact that it’s based on language, and that one may wonder whether being able to converse means one is gifted with ‘thought’. Another one is whether the test as it exists can really be used as a marker: aren’t the various chatbots/AIs out there simply well-programmed, but in no way indicative of whether they’ll be able to go further than that?

Also, I’m not sure I can agree with the 2014 ‘the Turing test has been passed’ result, as it seems to me the percentage is too low to warrant such a qualifier (if 90% of judges were fooled in believing they were conversing with a human, now that’d be something else... or am I aiming too high?), and it’s too early anyway for the current AIs to have been developed far enough (as fascinating as some of their conversations were, they still looked much more like complex chatbots than anything else—at least, to me).

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I did learn quite a few things no matter what.

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire - Rosamund Hodge

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

Hmm, not sure about this one. It’s a retelling of ‘Romeo & Juliet’, in a city that is the last one standing while the rest of the world has been invaded by ‘zombies’, where three families share the power, and where the religious order of the Sisters of Thorn has to perform yearly blood sacrifices in order to keep the undead at bay. It has a mysterious plague that makes people rise again after their death if precautions aren’t taken, and in that city, ‘the Juliet’ is actually a warrior bred from birth through magic rituals, with the ability to sense if someone has shed her family’s blood, and the compulsion to avenge said family member in turn (in other words, she still does a few other things than feigning death, thinking Romeo is dead, and promptly killing herself in turn). Also, she’s doomed to turn mad at some point

All in all, why not? This was interesting. The story itself, though, was kind of confusing, and although it did end up making sense, there were quite a few things I would’ve seen developed more in depth. Such as the Night Games, or the Necromancer (who kind of turned up at the awkward moment), or the Romeo/Paris/Vai trio relationship.

I’m not sure about the characters. I sort of liked the Juliet? Because she had that idea that ‘I’m already dead, and Romeo is dead, so I don’t care about dying because it means I can see him again’, yet at the same time she was quite lively and determined and not actively trying to take her own life while moping; her story is also rather sad (stripped of her name/real identity in a family whose beliefs in the afterlife involve having a name in order to be saved... nice). Romeo, though, was kind of stupid, and Paris way too naive; of the power trio there, the one I definitely liked was Vai (with a twist that was a bit predictable, but eh, he was fun to read about, and I totally agreed with the way he envisioned problems and how to tackle them!). As for Runajo... I don’t know. Determined, too, yet there were several moments when I thought her decisions should have her get killed or cast out or something, and she wasn’t because Plot Device.

(And very, very minor thing that probably only peeved me because I’m French, but... ‘Catresou’ sounds just so damn weird. I kept reading and ‘hearing’ that name as a French name, which sounds exactly like ‘quatre sous’—that’s like ‘four pence’—aaaand... Yep, so bizarre.)

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. To be fair, I liked the world depicted here in general, and that this retelling is sufficiently removed from R & J as to stand by itself; however, it was probably too ambitious for one volume, and ended up confusing.

Void Star

Void Star - Zachary Mason

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

This story takes us on the paths followed by three characters very different from each other: Irina, carrying a brain implant that gives her perfect memory and access to AIs; Kern, a young refugee from the San Francisco favelas, who taught himself through books and martial arts thanks to a laptop found in a dump; and Thales, son of a murdered Brazilian politician, whose life hangs by a thread only because his body may reject the implant that saved his life at any moment.

The world depicted in the novel is not exactly cyberpunk, not exactly transhumanistic, not exactly dystopian, but a blend of all three? Life-prolonging and youth treatments exist... only for those who can afford them. The implant in both Irina and Thales’s brains is exceptional... but. Large corporations dominate everyday life, but the protagonists are different from their more usual cyberpunk counterparts. Earth is going through climate changes and places like Singapore are gradually going underwater, and many people don’t have access to basic necessities... but at the same time, a sense of wonder still permeates the story, if only because of the way the characters are confronted to various threats and obstacles, yet also to hopes and openings towards new paths. Kern’s laptop, for instance, because of what it represents, or could represent, for a young boy living in the streets. Or the inhuman and fascinating beauty of the AIs introduced here, the destructive Cloudbreaker and the elusive Mathematician.

This is both close to us, making it possible to grasp it, with its technologies that we can understand (tablets and phones, albeit somewhat obsolete for the wealthier characters), and at the same time deeply alien and full of mysteries (what would it be like to live with a perfect, artificial memory you can access just whenever, yet that may send you into seizure and kill you?).

‘Void Star’ reads well, although for some reason I felt like taking my sweet time with it, perhaps because unconsciously I didn’t want to finish it too fast? It may sometimes be a wee difficult to follow, since it doesn’t rely on detailed explanations, instead taking its readers through its characters’ travels; I quite liked that, though—I like that in general in SF/F, even though I know I can’t read such stories when I’m too tired, for fear of losing my pace and missing important hints. While some events appeared, as a result, a little confusing, in the end I could still piece everything together. The three main narratives are well interwoven—chapter Y actually holds the missing answers to what happened in chapter X, and so on—and even when I didn’t have all the information to understand their world in the beginning, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Conclusion: Not the easiest read around, due to its (beautiful but sometimes complex) descriptive language and concepts; however, if one is ready to tackle that, this book can be positively fascinating.

Please Don't Tell My Parents I Have A Nemesis

Please Don't Tell My Parents I Have A Nemesis - Richard Roberts

[I received a copy of this book from the publisher.]

I remember being disappointed with the previous instalment. This one, although not as strong as the first volume in the series, I felt was better—probably because it deals less with slice-of-life/school moments, and tackles more seriously the matter of Penny wanting to come clean to her parents about the Inscrutable Machine. Well, ‘seriously’ being a tentative word, because her plan is, as Ray and Clair put it, just crazy enough to actually work. (On the other hand, well, it’s a plan crafted by a 14-year-old mad scientist, soooooo... why not!)

... And you can sense this plan smells like Eau de Backfiring from the moment it is formulated, and can’t help but wait for the train wreck to happen, and... I admit, I liked that part of the plot. Even though it didn’t cover the whole book (too bad). In a twisted way, the mistakes Penny keeps committing seem to me like they’re actually her subconscious, or perhaps her power, acting her to act: she wants to be a hero, she regularly tries to help people and do good deeds, but somehow she seems more cut out to be an ambiguous hero at best. More suited to be filed with the likes of Lucyfar than Marvelous.

(I’m also thinking that IF this is what the author is indeed going for, then it might also explain the Audit’s lack of insight about her daughter: maybe the Audit does know, has known for a while, and isn’t saying anything because she wants Penny to realise by herself what her true decision will have to be.)

What I regret:

- Like in the previous two books, we don’t see much of Ray and Claire, both in terms of development and sidekicking (summer camp kind of gets in the latter’s way). Hopefully the last volume will take care of the whole ‘Ray’s family’ issue. Or maybe it’s not worth it? I don’t know, I’ve always felt there was something off to them, and not merely as in ‘they don’t like superheroes/villains so I can’t tell them I’m one now.’

- The coming back of a friendtagonist: I was expecting it, I wanted to see it happen, yet at the same time, the way it was dealt with felt like a plot device. Kind of ‘this character is needed to help Penny build one specific machine, and then will be unneeded for the rest of the book.’ Meh.

What I’m in between about:
- The ending. It is fairly depressing, and a cliffhanger... yet at the same time, I’m glad the whole thing wasn’t solved just like that, since it would’ve been too simple, and... ‘too clean?’

Conclusion: Not on par with volume 1, howeve it did leave me with a better impression than volume 3.

Bad Girl Gone

Bad Girl Gone: A Novel - Temple Mathews

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

This ended up being a very uneventful read for me. The premise felt really cool: a girl finds herself in a creepy orphanage, realises it’s actually a kind of purgatory for murdered kids, and tries to find out who killed her so that she can move on. The beginning was intriguing, especially since, like other ghosts in the orphanage, Echo first has to piece together memories of her death—reliving the trauma at once would be too shocking—, and investigating why you’re in an orphanage when last you knew your parents were definitely alive, well, that’s tricky.

The problem lied mainly in how all this was executed. Not particularly thrilling, for starters. Echo has a couple of culprits in mind, so she and the other kids go to ‘haunt’ them and see if they’re going to wield under pressure, or are actually innocent, but… it wasn’t anything scary or memorable, more like pranks, not like the really creepy kind of haunting you could get when adding children/teenagers to the mix (in general, I find kid ghosts scarier than adult ones). The mystery itself—finding the murdered—wasn’t exciting either, nor were the murderer’s reactions. Perhaps this was partly due to Echo’s power as a ghost: entering living people’s bodies in order to perceive their thoughts. The investigation part, in turn, was more about vaguely picking a maybe-potential culprit, scaring them, popping in their mind, then be gone. Then the story. And then Echo’s past as a ‘bad girl’ was revealed, and it turned out it wasn’t so much bad as introduced without much taste.

Definitely cringeworthy was the drama-addled romance. Echo’s living boyfriend, Andy, is all about moping and wanting to kill himself over her death, and… well, call me hard-hearted and callous, but you’re 16 and that kind of relationship is by far NOT the first one you’re going to experience in life, so pegging everything on it always feels contrived to me. Then there’s cute ghost boy Cole, who’s not about murdering the hypotenuse (thanks goodness), yet was strange, considering Andy is not aware of his presence, and so the triangle is… incomplete? (Its attempts at becoming a square later didn’t help either.) Also contains examples of stupid Twue Wuv/The One/soulmate 4evah/Doormat Extraordinaire. Such as Echo being so happy that her corpse was dressed in her favourite dress at her funeral… Favourite because her boyfriend Andy liked it. I still have no idea if Echo herself liked the pattern or colour or whatever. In any case, these are the kind of tropes I dislike in novels in general, and in YA even more. Why always make it look like couple love is the ultimate end, as if nobody (whether girl or boy) couldn’t have a good life in different ways?

In fact, I was more interested in the orphanage’s headmistress (whose back story plays a part for a chapter or so) and other inmates, all with their own murders to solve. These I would’ve liked to see interact more than just as Echo’s sidekicks. But we don’t get to learn much about them, apart from how they died. Too bad.

Conclusion: Nope

The Girl from Rawblood

The Girl from Rawblood: A Novel - Catriona Ward

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I did like the narrative weaving back and forth between past and present, shedding more light on characters that came before Iris and Tom, as well as the atmosphere of Rawblood, both stifling and inviting to nostalgia. I had more trouble keeping interested in the story itself, though: the characters weren’t particularly engaging, so I never cared much about them. I never really felt the connection between Iris and Tom, and therefore its role in the ‘immediate and terrifying’ consequences mentioned in the blurb didn’t have much of an impact

The present tense narration tended to throw me out of the story from time to time, which didn’t help; I’m not sure why, I’m not too keen on that tense when it comes to historical fiction (and/or when several narrators are involved, as it’s often difficult to tell who’s telling the story, and it was the case here at times).

The reveal towards the end made sense in a way, yet seemed to me like it fell a little abruptly, and wasn’t completely… justified. Revenge? But why, considering ‘her’ identity, why would she inflict that on the Villarcas? Accident, couldn’t help it? Hm, not really convinced here. Quite a few things were unclear, and not in a way that contributed to a mysterious / gothic atmosphere.

Conclusion: I may have liked it more, if not for the style and the characters.

The Diabolic

The Diabolic - S.J. Kincaid

A lot of good ideas in this book, and I really liked the first part... but it started to go downhill when the Mandatory YA Het Romance plot waltzed in. I felt there were so many other ways the whole 'Diabolic without emotions may actually discover her humanity' could have unfolded, instead of romance (especially the boy/girl kind) being touted as the one means to everything and the main dilemma all at once. Also, NOT bonus points for the one LGBT aspect, considering how it turns out.

Too bad because the Empire in space/religious faith vs. technology revival side of the story, coupled with GoT-like politics, could've been really interesting otherwise.

One of Us Is Lying

One of Us Is Lying - Karen  M. McManus

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I’m not sure how I feel exactly about this book. I did expect a lot clichés when I started this book (which the blurb makes clear anyway), and clichés there were, but I’m still not sure I liked or not? Sometimes I do want to see how they pan out; sometimes I want something different from the start. Here, I’d say that mostly they don’t really deviate from the usual outcomes (girl falls for the bad boy, girl/boy cheats on partner, etc.), and the plot is a little heavy on high school stereotype drama at times. I suppose I also expected that the four teenagers’ secrets would be ‘darker’ than ‘oh noes I cheated on my partner’, since this seems to be so very common in plots (and here’s a reminder about how everything feels like the fate of the world depends on it, at that age).

On the other hand, even though these things were predictable, and even though I had my suspicions about the murderer halfway throughout the story, I found myself reading fairly fast because I wanted to see if other secrets would pile up on the existing one, if other characters would help shed light on what really happened, or what other clues would appear. Not that many, it turned out, but... it still kept me entertained.

The mystery was... okay-ish? The story focused more on the characters and their lives unravelling than on providing lots of clues or red herrings—entertaining, but not thrilling.

I had trouble with the 1st person narrative: our four suspected murderers take turns to tell the story, but their respective voices sounded too much like each other, so at times I found myself not too sure of who was telling a specific part, and I had to re-read, or use the ‘chapter’s title’ to see who it was about. The style is somewhat juvenile, however it wasn’t jarring (and definitely -less- jarring than that trend of having teenagers speak like 40-year-old chaps!).

Conclusion: Probably a novel that will hold more appeal for younger readers, but not so much if one is already used to such themes/plots and want to go further than stereotypes.

Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed

Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed - Nawar Alsaadi

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Quite an interesting story, with likeable characters—possibly a like goofy, too, but I was in the mood for that, and also, taking jabs at helpdesks/customer service? Count me in, I’ve been in that kind of jobs that for some time now, and we all need to find our fun somewhere, otherwise we’d just get bonkers.

Anyway. That was for the fun parts, enhanced with the way the narrator swipes at social media, the amount of time we spend checking Facebook and Twitter, and how it’s so easy to get lost in it. Not that I don’t like my little FB time, but I know what it feels like to turn your computer on at the end of the day and realise you’ve spent the past two hours going through clickbait crap when you could’ve been doing something else. (Like reading, and reviewing, and therefore catching up on your backlog of NetGalley books, so that you can then post your reviews on your blog and FB page and... Wait a second.)

There are less fun parts, too, closer to actual terrorism, with a plot meant to destroy cell towers, satellites, etc., through a virus uploaded on everybody’s smartphones. A revolution of sorts, to force people to look up from their phones and enjoy life again. Kind of extreme (I’m trying not to spend too much time on social media, but let’s be honest, if internet and networks in general are gone, I’m out of a job). One will like this idea or not. It’s probably a case of ‘doing the wrong things for the right reasons’. In the light of recent years and the growing amount of terrorist attacks, this commentary is not, well, enjoyable, yet one can also (unfortunately) relate to it while reading about it (my main Tube hub is closed today because of that, now let me tell you that’s one instance I was glad to hang on FB instead of being out socialising!).

Style: the writing is OK, some typos now and then (it was an ARC so hopefullyl those were corrected in the final version), and at first the narrator alluding to hashtags and emojis was a little confusing. Nothing too bad, though.

I’m torn about the twist in the end—can’t decide whether I like it, or would have preferred the story to end one chapter earlier. Still unsure as well if the book was meant to be totally satirical, and if I should get angry at it (I preferred to treat is as satire and fun, because I’m too lazy and it’s too hot outside to waste energy into such feelings).

Conclusion: Maybe not the best read you can find when it comes to taking jabs at social, yet enjoyable nonetheless.

Upside Down

Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling - John Hornor Jacobs, Maurice Broaddus, Rati Mehrotra, Nisi Shawl, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Michelle Muenzler, Michael R. Underwood, Jaym Gates, Monica Valentinelli

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

3.5/4 stars; I liked quite a few of these short stories, none of them made me roll my eyes, and to be fair, the essays at the end of the book were also quite interesting.

My favourites:

* “Single, Singularity”: While it doesn’t really invert the trope it’s based on, I’m a sucker for AI stories, and this one was both thrilling, and chilling in its ending.

* “Seeking Truth”: The ‘blind psychic’ trope, subverted in that here, the blind person is extremely skilled at reading other people, no need for special powers for that.

* “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Paprika Place?”: A mix of Sesame Stree-like TV shows and jaded ex-super soldiers trying to go home. Very nostalgic, perhaps a wee bit long, but a good read nonetheless.

* “Chosen”: A comic twist on ‘the Chosen’, with jabs at tropes like the gun-toting weapons maniac, the Buffy-like teenager fighting demons, and pedantic occultist scholar. This one was really fun.

* “The White Dragon”: A different take on the ‘yellow peril’, in a 1920s San Francisco (also, I liked revisiting that city in such a light, now that I’ve finally been able to actually travel there).

* “Her Curse, How Gently It Comes Undone”: The Witch and the Damsel In Distress, poised against each other, each with their wiles and strengths, and with the story playing on the trope of men rescuing the Damsel... only they’re not the right people to do the job.

* “Burning Bright”: I really liked the main character here, just the right mix of slightly hinged and yet fairly grounded at the same time.

* “Santa CIS (Episode 1: No Saint)”: This story plays well on both the Santa Claus/Christmas and ‘old soldier goes back to war’ tropes.

* “The First Blood of Poppy Dupree”: At first I thought this would be about werewolves, and it turned out it was something else, which I liked.

* “Until There is Only Hunger”: A strong story, with a definite end-of-the-world feeling, dwindling hope mixed with growing despair, and characters trying to find whatever comfort they can, although this rings more and more hollow. Bonus point for characters not being typical cis/hetero/white.

* “Drafty as a Chain Mail Bikini”: I suspected where this one was going, but I liked it, and it made me laugh.

* “The Tangled Web”: Love at first sight and romance woes... but not among humans, which lent a different dimension to this story.

The essays: definitely read those. They deal with the Hero’s Journey, its limitations, the Heroine’s Journey, its limitations as well, and push further, when it comes to trans and gay/lesbian heroes, which is really needed. Because let’s be honest: it’s already difficult to find a good story where a woman is not reduced to accomplishment = family/motherhood/taking care of others, but it’s even worse when you’re non-binary.

The Breedling and the City in the Garden

The Breedling and the City in the Garden (The Element Odysseys) - Kimberlee Ann Bastian

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I thought I’d like this novel more. It has an interesting and probably complex mythos, juxtaposing our world and another, Elemental-like creator powers, a Fates triad, soulcatchers, the Devil, and quite a few more—something I wouldn’t have minded dive in more. However, the way information was revealed was strange: both an info-dump and confusing, which is an unfortunate mix. I don’t doubt that, had it been presented differently, I would’ve warmed up to it.

I don’t mind a book starting in medias res, but here I felt I was thrown into a story without having enough background elements to fully grasp who the characters were, what their roles were, and why they were important. Stingy Jack, the Tales Teller, the Apothecary... After a while, it started to make sense, yet too late into the story for me to have been allowed to care about them, and too little (for instance, the relationship between Buck/Bartholomew and the Shepherdess is only made clearer right at the end; had it been manifest sooner, I may have cared about the Breedling a bit more, I suppose).

Also, some of the decisions the characters made were odd, or at least presented in a way that that made them look like they came out of nowhere, or without subtlety. I was particularly unsure about Charlie’s ‘plan’ involving the speakeasy—it made sense in one way, but not considering the kind of people would go there, as if he couldn’t have thought about that (hint: precisely the kind of people Charlie didn’t want to see near Buck).

The style was the other element that really bothered me. Omniscient point of view isn’t my favourite, so when it comes with a prose I don’t enjoy, I don’t do well with it. Dialogues were often stilted, with characters telling about their past as if they were reading from a book (I never expected Charlie to speak the way he did), and a lot of telling instead of showing. Since there were a lot of heated feelings in the story (grief, tension between gangs, wariness, simmering violence, threats...), this ‘telling’ was all the more obvious.

Nevertheless, there were good parts in the novel. Charlie especially was a relatable character: not perfect for sure, torn between his desire to follow his mother’s wishes (by helping those younger than him) and his wish to be free to live a life of his own—and yet, his natural tendencies always carry him towards taking care of others. He had to go through a lot, dealing with his grief while trying to follow his sense of duty, and no matter what, I definitely cannot fault a person for accepting their responsibilities.

I don’t think I’ll pick the second book though. It’s more a 1.5/2-star read for me.

The Nightly Disease

The Nightly Disease - Max Booth III

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

This one’s a bit of an oddball: the story of Isaac, night auditor in a hotel in Texas, spending his days sleeping and his nights in the drudgery of his job full of annoying customers, endless requests and weird happenings. And ‘weirder and weirder’ is how his nights become throughout the stories, from the moment he meets his new colleague Mandy who wants to pet an owl, and gets involved with Kia the bulimic homeless girl. Follows a gallery of shady characters, odd encounters, bodies piling up, and owls. (Yes, owls. The little creeps.)

I can’t tell whether I enjoyed this novel or not. It’s very bizarre, and Isaac’s descent into this half-believable, half-what-the-hell crazy world, was a mix of enjoyable and uncomfortable. (I it’s not the gory side that created that feeling for me, but the bulimic girl—to be fair, that’s probably because I myself have a history of eating disorders.)

On the other hand, the depiction of hotel jobs was quite funny, and the various circumstances Isaac had to fend through, from clogged toilets to murdered customers, even though somewhat unbelievable, had just enough of a touch of ‘based on something real’ for the surreal parts to flow in a... logical way, should I say? In that sort of inner logic pertaining the book.

Conclusion: 3 stars. Interesting and funny enough for me to probably try another novel by this author at some point.

Waking Hell

Waking Hell - Al Robertson

[I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley.]

Sequel to 'Crashing Heaven', a novel I read a couple of years ago, and quite liked. The world is roughly the same—Station, floating in space—but the protagonists are different, and the situation has changed: one of the gods was forcibly removed, and the fetches (dead people reconstructed from their memories) now have existences of their own, even though their community went through a plague that almost destroyed them along the way.

The characters: as mentioned above, no Hugo Fist or Jack Forster here, although they're briefly mentioned. This time, the story mainly follows Leila, a fetch who's trying to save her genius brother Dieter, and Cassiel, a Totality mind who's investigating said brother's death. It starts with Dieter falling prey to an old tech artifact, and dying from it; however, contrary to what Leila thinks at first, he cannot be brought back as a fetch, due to a fishy contract he signed at the last moment with a couple of shady characters called 'pressure men'. Finding herself the unwilling beneficiary of this contract that left her a rich heiress, Leila uses her newly acquired money—and the door it opens—to try and find out what really happened to Dieter, and bring him back at all costs, the way himself helped her build herself back up after the fetch plague almost deconstructed her for good.

Even though I admit I didn't like Leila much at first (too whiny and self-centered), and would have hoped to see Jack and Hugo again, soon enough the new characters grew up on me. On the one hand, Leila tends to keep focused on Dieter and not on the bigger picture, but this bit on the selfish side makes her, in a way, very human. On the other hand, she puts herself on the front line as well: you definitely can't call her a coward, all the more as the enemy could very well wipe her out of existence. As for Cassiel, she brings a lot of information about the AIs, the way they live, and how close they are to humans even if the latter don't always notice it.

(Interestingly, as a fetch, Leila is just as much dependent on hardware and on the local equivalent of the online world to exist and manifest herself. The world of Station definitely keeps blurring the lines and questioning what makes us human, especially once you throw the gods into the mix: the Rose who isn't so infallible, East who's obsessed with the media and her reality shows...)

There are a lot of epic virtual reality/online world/hidden servers moments. Because both Leila and Cassiel are reconstructed or artificial AIs, they're both powerful and frail. Without a physical body, and armed with a weapon Dieter had once designed for her only, Leila has means of her own to fight and resist; and Cassiel was designed as a weapon herself, with a nanogel body making her suited for both physical and digital combat; and yet, because they're software-based, they're vulnerable to viruses and similar attacks... which makes the pressure men and their ability to edit data (including memories) all the more dangerous to them. Memory is clearly one of the stakes in the novel, because there comes a point when neither characters nor readers can really tell whether their memories are true or were manipulated.

A few discrepancies in terms of style (I had noticed that in the first book already: sometimes the prose switches to short sentences that jar a little with the rest), but not enough to really be a problem. All instances of 'brought' were also printed as 'bought', but since I got a preprint copy, this was hopefully corrected in the final version.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I found the ending a little rushed, with some loose ends not so properly tied, and there were a couple of moments when I had to push through for a few pages (for some reason I can't exactly pinpoint). Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Station and its particular blend of bleak cyberpunk and transhumanism. Should there be a third book, I wouldn't mind reading it either.

The Apothecary's Curse

The Apothecary's Curse - Barbara  Barnett

(I got a copy through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)

The story of "The Apothecary's Curse" intertwines different plots, mostly mid-19th century London, a short early 20th century stint, and 2016 Chicago. All feature Gaelan and Simon, two men who became accidentally immortal through ingesting an alchemical compound, and struggle to lead a life of their own. Condemned for a crime he didn't commit, Gaelan was tortured for years by a mad doctor, before fleeing abroad, while Simon pines for his dead wife, unable to join her in death. As the decades pass, they find themselves remaining that strange brand of friends who can't stand to be in each other's presence for too long, yet always gravitate back towards each other. Until a strange book and a geneticist fall into the mix, and both men realise they may be about to know worse than one single mad doctor in a now closed asylum.

All these plots aren't only concerned with alchemy and immortality, but also with love: love for a woman, love of friendship, love of knowledge (even though gained in twisted ways), love of family, love of life itself... because when all's said and done, Gaelan still doesn't want to die, still finds wonders in the way science has been progressing.

In general, I found the main characters compelling, especially Gaelan, who never really loses hope in humanity in spite what he's been through. I found the contrast fairly interesting: Gaelan, who tried to help and was tortured and killed for it, called a criminal and a madman, forced to flee, but kept enjoying life, becoming a dealer in old books and antiques, nevergiving up in spite of his struggles with PTSD; and Simon, who seems to have everything (respect, fame and money as a doctor, then as a famous author), but cannot find peace, haunted by the memory of his departed wife—his story was tragic, though I admit I tended to side with Gaelan much more because, well, who can fault the guy who tries to live instead of wallowing in despair for a whole century, eh? As for Eleanor and Anne, they had their own struggles to go through, their own decisions to make, trying to fight evil as they could, even if it sometiles meant resorting to another kind of evil.

If anything, I was a little disappointed in the 2016 part. The 1842 and early 1900s one felt more vivid, better developed, whereas the modern era plotline, while interesting, was also a bit lackluster. Perhaps because I kept thinking there wasn't enough danger in it, considering what was at stake and the 'evil genetics/pharmacy company' that sooner or later would be after Gaelan. I guess I expected more development here, more of a feeling of urgency, especially towards the end.

Conclusion: Still a solid 3.5 stars. I enjoyed this novel.

Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's Tomorrow

Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's Tomorrow - Paolo Bacigalupi, Stephen Graham Jones, Alyssa Wong, Saladin Ahmed, Cat Rambo, Nisi Shawl, E. Lily Yu, Madeline Ashby, Joshua Viola, Jason Heller

[I received an e-copy of this book through NetGalley.]

A collection of short stories with virtual reality, AI and technology themes in general. Despite the 'cyberpunk' flair, I agree with the curators: it's not so much cyberpunk in its original meaning, as dealing with various ideas that fit our current societies more than the 'old cyberpunk' feeling.

* "Serenade:" 3/5

A hacker decrypting data on an old USB sticks realises that said data is not about future useful information, but memories.

* "The Mighty Phin:" 3/5

In a prison ship controlled by an AI, not everything is as it looks, and truth may be more difficult to stomach than the characters think at first. Bit of an abrupt ending, though, when I think about how it could've been more developed.

* "Reactions:" 3/5

What a drone pilot pumped up on battle drugs goes through when the operation he's on is suddenly cancelled... but not what's still lingering in his organism. I found it interesting, although, like the story before it, I'd have liked some more development (especially regarding the soldier's decision to break his family).

* "The Bees of Kiribati:" 5/5

Chilling because even though this doesn't exist (yet), the principles behind the murders in this story could very well be applied in other ways. It also raises the old but still accurate ethical question: would you kill a few people, even babies, if it meant being able to save many more?

* "The Rest Between Two Notes:" 2/3

Promising theme (a teenager killing her mother repeatedly in virtual reality), but I found the plot too muddled in places. The resolution brought at the end wasn't too clear--I wouldn't mind in a novel, but in short stories it's another matter.

* "The Singularity is In Your Hair:" 5/5

Touching and horrible. A girl suffering from a degenerative disease, who can only experience living through virtual reality, performs jobs and meets people thanks to an AI who may or may not be so benevolent. The promise of one day being fully uploaded to virtual space, and leaving the meat behind instead of facing the prospect of her impending death, keep her going. And she desperately hopes this will come true sooner than later.

* "Panic City:" 5/5

In an underground city that is both a refuge and a prison, people have been living for generations following models and using technology that are gradually failing. When something threatens to break an opening into this 'homeostatic' environment, the AI controlling the city has to make a decision: is their original programming really ideal in this case?

* "The Faithful Soldier, Prompted:" 4/5

A veteran from corporate wars receives prompts on his augmented reality system, even though the war is over. While such defective prompts are known to be useless, and should be discarded, these seem different... and so he follows them, desperate in his hopes that the rewards will save the woman he loves. I liked the writing here--even the prompts sounded poetic.

* "Your Bones Will Not Be Unknown:" 4/5

An assassin is sent to kill a rival boss, knowing full well there are little chances of success here. But what the boss has in mind for them is not necessarily death, and could even actually be a gift.

* "Staunch:" 2/5

A group of kids-hackers-rebels, led by a doctor who used to be part of a legendary team, travel through what's left of the UK to save the life of one of their own. Though the plot itself was a bit weak, I liked the technological problems used in it (replacement organs shutting down if the firmware's outdated or the copyright has changed hands, etc.)—definitely freaky.

* "Other People's Thoughts:" 2/5

About empathy, telepathic powers and gender fluidity. Good themes, and I would've loved actually liking the story, but it was more descriptive than actual plot, and I found it too weak to hold my interest.

* "WISYOMG:" 1/5

Almost skipped that one. The style and character weren't appealing, and I'm still not sure what was the idea. Warning people against body mods and fads? It was hard to follow, so I'm really not sure.

* "We Will Take Care of Our Own:" 2/5

Of corrupt politicians and corporations trying to make money by officially solving problems, and officiously sweeping them under the carpet. Again, good theme, especially since the politician has a skeleton of her own in the closet, but in terms of plot and development, it wasn't strong nor long enough.

* "A Song Transmuted:" 3/5

A young musician comes up with a new concept to be music, rather than simply playing it—spurred by her relationship with her grandfather, his way of encouraging her to meet other people and play music with her, and this in spite of a dishonest colleague stealing her idea. Good, though not groundbreaking.

* "It's Only Words:" 2/5

A sort of neo-Luddite theme, of a boy writing his school project on paper when everybody else is constantly connected to the web and not doing anything in an "analogue" way anymore. I'm not sure where this story was going, though: I felt that something was missing, that the point wasn't strongly made enough at the end, because nothing really changes, and the people targetted may not even have understood what was happening?

* "Small Offerings:" 5/5

Horrific but fascinating. A story about the means that may be necessary, in a future and over-polluted world, for people to carry healthy children to term, by sacrificing others.

* "Darkout:" 2/5

Good build-up to something bigger, in a society where everybody's living under the camera's eye... but the end just fell flat, and nothing really happened.

* "Visible Damage:" 3/5

A hacker goes on the trail of a nascent AI, in the hopes of finding it before everyone else obliterates it. Interesting, but a bit confusing.

* "The Ibex on the Day of Extinction:" 4/5

A man far from his family comes home to find everybody and everything gone—no GPS, no radio, no internet, and only empty clothes left behind.
I kind of suspected what had happened early on. Still, I liked this story. Sometimes all I need is for the conclusion to vindicate what I'm already thinking.

* "How Nothing Happens:" 1/5

Kind of what it says on the tin? I get the basic idea, but the way it was developed didn't grab my attention.

Wraithborn

Wraithborn - Marcia Chen, Joe Benitez

[I received an e-copy of this comics through NetGalley.]

This first volume collects issues 1 to 6 of the 'Redux edition. Most of the book is actually a flashback (explaing what led to the events of the first pages), but reads as a full story nonetheless. It introduces us to the main characters of 'Wraithborn', starting with Melanie, a normal and shy teenager who only wants to go through high school life relatively unscathed and unbullied, and thus does her best to remain invisible and not attracted unwanted attention. Only that's what she does when she accidentally receives the power of the Wraithborn, intended for another, and finds herself pursued by an antagonist who wants nothing more than this power for herself.

I found the art in general fairly good, with dynamic action scenes and vibrant colours, although (as often in such cases) the women's clothing is nothing too practical, and Melanie's features seemed maybe too... mature? Including when she's still a clueless teenager. So at first I thought she was more like 25 instead of 15, which felt a bit weird.

Some characters were likeable, like Zoe, with her weird fashion sense and the way she helps Melanie. Mel herself was more subdued, so it took me more time to warm up to her. Val... well, I still kind of wonder if he's going to tell Mel the truth, or if he'll do the not-so-nice thing. Could go either way. He didn't act like the vindicative, jealous type he could've been, all circumstances considered, so bonus point.

The story itself was interesting enough, albeit not too original compared to other works with similar themes. The villains are ruthless, the heroes may or may not be set up for betrayal later by those they trust most, and there's the lingering mystery of why the original 'carrier' of the Wraithborn was outside, instead of preparing for the ceremony (and therefore had to give his power to the first passer-by who happened to be around): either there's something fishy here or it was a plot hole, and I really hope it's the former... but, of course, this is the kind of information that is likely to be revealed only later.

Conclusion: I may pick the next volume in ebook, but probably not in paper version.