The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Saturday
Apr202019

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

First published in the UK in 2018; published by Del Rey on October 23, 2018

Thin Air is Martian noir. It is set in the same universe as the author’s Thirteen, a novel that appeared about ten years ago, but more than a century has passed between the two books. The novels are based on the concept of breeding genetically-modified humans for military and similar purposes. Their tendency toward aggression makes them antisocial. Many ended up on Mars, where Earth dumps its problems.

Hakan Veil is a hibernoid. He sleeps for three-month stretches, then “runs hot” until he triggers another period of hibernation. He was bred to serve as an overrider, sort of a law enforcer who is kept in a deep freeze during interplanetary transit and thawed out when trouble needs to be overcome.

As the story begins, Veil walks into a club on the strip in Bradbury (a Martian city, of course) and does violence to the club owner. Veil’s contract says he’s supposed to be out of jail and paid within 40 days, but the Earth corporation that oversees Bradbury is conducting an audit, and high levels of crime and corruption need to be concealed with care, much to Veil’s displeasure, given the risk that he will be locked up indefinitely. When a cop named Nikki Chakana suddenly releases Veil with instructions to protect an auditor named Madison Madekwe, Veil’s new worry is that the criminals who hired him on his last job will think he’s cooperating with the police.

For reasons that are not immediately explained, someone tries to blow up Veil with a warhead shortly after his release. Do the Crater Critters who hired him to take out the club owner think he ratted them out? Are the club owner’s pals looking for payback? Is the warhead wielder someone who doesn’t want Veil to protect Madekwe? An angry husband who does not take well to being cuckolded? The number of people who want to kill Veil is impressive, and some of them can afford warheads.

The intricate plot (Veil protects, loses, then tries to find Madekwe while reevaluating his mission) mixes action with intrigue as multiple attempts are made on Veil’s life. Corporate hit squads seem to be competing with underworld figures, politicians, and cops to see who can do the most damage to the overrider. Veil encounters interesting characters, has sex with some of them, gets played by others, and never really knows who to trust. He learns that someone was planning to make a big score before he disappeared and that the score, the nature of which is a mystery, probably has something to do with Madekwe’s abduction. Piecing it all together is a challenge for both Veil and the reader.

Richard K. Morgan always tells a good story but I’m not sure that this one justifies its length. Characters love to make speeches. Sometimes they make the same speech repeatedly. Some of the action scenes come across as padding. I suspect a quarter of the story could have omitted without doing any great harm to the plot or characterizations, while achieving a tighter novel.

Veil is a basic enhanced tough guy with a snarky tough guy personality, but some of the supporting cast members (and there are plenty of those) are more original. My interest in the story waxed and waned, but in the end I enjoyed the action and the moderately puzzling mystery that drives the plot. The story’s political/cultural background is carefully imagined. Most of the story has a high fun factor. That’s more than enough to earn a recommendation, even if the novel is a bit wordy.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr192019

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen

Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on January 15, 2019

Niviaq Korneliussen is blurbed as having created her own genre with Last Night in Nuuk, but I think she relocated Bright Lights, Big City to a small city in Greenland (Nuuk, the capital) and shifted the focus from one straight man who chases a woman to five young people who, while covering most of the sexual bases, chase each other. Like the protagonist in Bright Lights, Big City, the five central characters are young and wasted and self-absorbed. I suspect that readers who share those qualities will get more out of Last Night in Nuuk than I did.

A central character in Last Night in Nuuk views Greenland as a nation of anger, where alcoholism and wife beating and child neglect are tolerated while gay people are not. That character (Inuk, whose name means “man”) leaves Greenland to escape the anger, although he is among the angriest characters in the novel. Inuk also fled Greenland to avoid a burgeoning sex scandal. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but Inuk (who is presumably an Inuit) does not feel at home in Denmark, because he is not blonde and pale. Nor does he feel at home in Greenland, although it eventually becomes clear that Inuk is not at home with himself. Inuk’s life is revealed in a series of letters he sends from Denmark.

Inuk’s best friend is a sexually free woman named Arnuq (the longer version, Arnaluk, means “woman”) who fueled the scandal that forced Inuk to leave Greenland. Arnuq lives to party, leading to scenes of nightlife in Greenland, which like nightlife everywhere involves clubs, dancing, drinking, drugs, random hookups, and eventual vomiting. Arnuq’s problem with alcohol destroys not just her own life but the other lives she touches, primarily because she has no impulse control and can’t keep her mouth shut (and can’t stop her fingers from texting).

Inuk’s sister is Fia. Events in the novel complicate the relationships between Inuk, Arnuq, and Fia, including Fia’s realization that her fiancé Peter is boring her to death and that she is more attracted to women than men. She tests the theory that she might be a lesbian by having disappointing sex with a random ugly man, which might only prove that she’s not attracted to ugly men. She decides at that point to swear off sausage.

The fourth key character, Ivinnquaq (Ivik), has a girlfriend Sara, but Sara is kissing Fia while Arnuq is messing around with Ivik, who eventually reveals her own sexual identity issues. In any event, after Ivik explains how she came to realize her sexual preference for women, we also learn that Ivik no longer feels like having sex with Sara, or perhaps with anyone. She is needy when it comes to companionship and love but the opposite when it comes to sex. She fears abandonment but her loathing of sex invites Sara to abandon her. To the surprise of no reader by this point, Sara (key character five) turns out be angry and depressed. Welcome to Greenland.

It might be clear at this point that the characters in Last Night in Nuuk have a remarkable talent for creating drama in their lives (and I’ve only scratched the surface here). Many people have that talent, which makes them annoying to people who don’t share a desire for constant interpersonal conflict. Reading about their manufactured drama is also a bit annoying, at least to me.

Last Night in Nuuk is organized by character rather than chronology, so the reader needs to reassemble the pieces from time to time to make sense of the story. This is a character-driven novel, however, and the technique gives the reader a strong sense of the primary characters while inviting reinterpretation of events as seen from multiple perspectives.

I suspect that Last Night in Nuuk does what Korneliussen set out to do. The novel is well constructed and it plainly has literary merit. I try to be open to all forms of literature but I am likely not the novel’s target audience. Readers who know what to do with a hashtag might be more intuitively comfortable with the novel’s style and content (although I have to say that I enjoyed the style more than the content). I was more intrigued by the atmosphere and the critique of Greenland’s intolerance than I was by the characters and their endless drama.

While the story didn’t speak to me, neither did Bright Lights, Big City, another party-all-night-and-make-drama novel that received glowing reviews. The comparison leads me to recommend Last Night in Nuuk to Millennials, to readers for whom sexual identity is a burning issue, and to readers who enjoyed Bright Lights, Big City.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Apr172019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Published by Ace on April 16, 2019

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in a series. Each is written as a stand-alone, self-contained novel, although they all occupy the same universe. The books occasionally refer to events that occurred in earlier novels, particularly a project by the Pathfinders to colonize another planet.

At the beginning of Atlas Alone, everyone on Earth is dead. Dee assumes that one of the more than ten thousand people traveling through space on Atlas 2 gave the order for nukes to be fired from America to Europe. She wants to find and possibly kill the person who did it, but she doesn’t even know who is in charge of Atlas 2. She lives in her apartment and wastes her time and hates her life as the ship powers toward its destination, still 20 years away. The destination is the Pathfinder’s colony.

Dee manages to score a job that gives her access to data about media consumption on Atlas 2. She also gets access to an immersive role-playing game that is reserved for elite players. Walking through the game triggers memories of her desperate childhood, allowing the reader to understand the events that shaped Dee’s life. But playing the game may have something to do with an apparent murder on the ship. Has game fantasy crossed the boundary with reality? Is Dee an inadvertent killer?

Her job allows Dee to discover that the elite passengers and crew members all belong to the Christian States of America. Emma Newman imagines an America that became passionately religious — meaning Christian — during the 2020s. I can understand why a European might envision that, given America’s current revival of intolerance, but the loudness of the intolerant is a panic reaction to trends that are moving in the opposite direction as America becomes more open to non-Christians. Science fiction writers are entitled to imagine the unlikely, however, and the value of science fiction is its reminder that what seems unlikely today may be reality tomorrow. The book sends a cautionary and timely message about religious extremism and its tendency to eradicate nonbelievers. At the same time, the novel suggests that extremism works both ways.

The plot challenges the reader to guess the identity of the person who keeps confronting Dee in the immersive atmosphere. Dee, on the other hand, is challenged to understand the secrets behind the population chosen to take the journey, including what seems to be a deliberate attempt to maintain stratification between the haves and have-nots. That doesn’t bode well for the society that the ship leaders intend to create on the new world, although it sounds exactly like the plan wealthy people would make when developing a colony.

Character development, particularly of Dee, is perfectly integrated with the plot. The story explores interesting philosophical questions, including whether and when it is justifiable to kill some people for the greater good of others. As that theme begins to drive the plot, the novel swerves in an unexpected direction to arrive at a surprising ending that is a study in irony — albeit an ending that is consistent with the philosophical underpinnings of the plot.

Newman has tackled challenging moral questions in each book in the series while telling interesting stories. She does that again in Atlas Alone, making this series one that every thinking fan of science fiction (as opposed to the Sad Puppies who just want to read about powerful white males triumphing over aliens) will want to consider reading.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr152019

Metropolis by Philip Kerr

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 9, 2019

Philip Kerr died in March 2018. He is survived by a memorable body of work. About half of Kerr’s novels record the career of Bernie Gunther, from Berlin police detective to private investigator to investigator for a Nazi intelligence agency to POW to private detective again to fugitive. Gunther is one of the most interesting and complex characters in crime fiction.

Metropolis is Kerr’s last Bernie Gunther novel, published posthumously. Other than the first three, which were written as a trilogy, they can be read in any order, as they jump around the stages of Gunther’s life, following no particular chronology.

Metropolis tells the story of Bernie Gunther’s promotion from Vice to the Murder Commission in 1928. His first assignment involves the murders and scalping of four prostitutes near Berlin’s Silesian Station. Unemployment is rampant, forcing more women onto the streets, sparking waves of violence, and leading to clashes between communists and Nazis. Fritz Lang wants to make a film about mass murderers and his wife, who is writing the script, meets with Bernie to get the juicy details about the scalpings. The novel shares the title of Lang’s best-known film which, like the book, contrasts a beautiful and cultured city with the injustice suffered by its workers.

A second serial killer appears before the Murder Commission can get a handle on the scalper. This one is shooting disabled war veterans, apparently practicing a form of eugenics to make a point about patriotism. Since the deaths of veterans make bad press, the police are told to drop the first investigation (the victims are just prostitutes, after all) and to focus on the new killer. Bernie goes undercover, a new concept in police work, as he plays the role of a legless veteran on a cart, serving as bait for the killer. Like most undercover operations, the effort does not go as planned, but it does lead Gunther’s investigation in new directions.

Metropolis is a classic detective novel with the kind of intricate plot for which Kerr is known. The reader and Gunther consider an array of clues and possible suspects as they try to identify the killer(s). The resolution is satisfying and surprising.

The time frame allows Kerr to consider the limits of democracy. “What use is it when it can’t deliver a viable government?” Gunther asks. Another character opines: “There’s only so much democracy that one country can take before people get tired of the idea.” Unfortunately, as the rise of Hitler demonstrated, authoritarians use democracy only to undermine it. They appeal to weak minds and get themselves elected by demonizing scapegoats. Gunther is an intriguing character because he managed to survive without losing his humanity in a country that repeatedly chose hatred and ethnic purity over tolerance and empathy.

Vigilantism is another theme. Bernie finds himself arguing with vigilantes who do not believe killers deserve a fair trial. With as much crime and injustice as Gunther has seen, he might be tempted to agree, but he understands that civilization depends on applying the same rules of fairness to the best and the worst equally. The concepts of fairness and equality, of course, will soon be lost in Gunther’s Germany. Gunther is, in the words of one character, “guarding an empty safe,” yet the safe will never be replenished if people like Gunther do not stand up for principles.

The historical settings always make Bernie Gunther novels fascinating, but the novels succeed so admirably because Gunther is such a fascinating character. Dark, snide, jaded, but as honest as circumstances allow him to be, Gunther is a perfect noir character. Fans of crime fiction will miss him.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Apr142019

Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

Published by DAW on October 30, 2018

Terminal Alliance is an offbeat space opera. The novel is written for laughs but it includes the fundamental elements that make space operas enjoyable to sf fans, including alien empires and starship battles. The story is amusing rather than LOL funny, but it successfully blends humor with action to create a science fiction beach read.

The story imagines that humanity devolved into a feral state. Humans are not exactly zombies, but — well, okay, humans are pretty much zombies. Fortunately, this isn’t a zombie novel, as an apparently benign race called the Krakau have begun the slow process of restoring incredibly dangerous humans to their somewhat less dangerous pre-zombie condition. One of the running jokes is that aliens view humans with trepidation, even when they aren’t feral, because humans have a reputation for being violent and hard to kill.

The Krakau Alliance maintains peace in the galaxy, primarily by keeping the Podryans at bay. Humans are assigned to various roles on Krakau ships as part of the Earth Mercenary Corps. A couple of other alien races are also part of the crew.

Having been given the gift of rebirth by the Krakau, Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is no longer feral. She named herself after a 22nd century scientist who help destroy human civilization. She chose that name as a reminder not to destroy human civilization. Other humans choose names like Marilyn Monroe and Wolfgang Mozart.

Mops is dedicated to helping the Krakau, as repayment for their efforts to salvage humankind. She is a lieutenant on a cruiser called the Pufferfish where she has been placed in charge of the janitors. She supervises a group of humans and aliens who unclog toilets and disinfect rooms when aliens engage in slimy activities.

Despite her lowly status, Mops gives tactical advice to battle commanders because she’s been around a long time. For reasons that are not immediately clear to Mops, a routine mission goes awry when the Podryans cause most of the human crew of the Pufferfish to revert to their feral state. The janitors have avoided the infection thanks to their environmental suits, leaving them in charge after the Krakau turn up dead.

The premise creates opportunities for amusing scenes. The janitors use cleaning supplies to subdue humans who revert to a feral state. They have no idea how to fly the Pufferfish or operate its weapons systems, and they generally destroy the ship in simulations as they try to learn to operate it. The only chance the janitors have of saving the human crew involves commandeering the ship and chasing after the Podryans to learn what they did to cause humans to turn feral. This leads to a jaunt through the galaxy, a visit to an alien shopping mall, and the discovery of a revisionist view of human history.

Terminal Alliance is a light and original story that takes a couple of surprising turns. Key characters have well-defined personalities that lead to personality clashes that have been a classic feature of space opera since the days of McCoy and Spock. The ending sets up the next novel in the series. I enjoyed Terminal Alliance and I hope to enjoy Mops’ next adventure just as much.

RECOMMENDED