Otherland Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

Tad Williams has long been a favorite author of mine. I first fell in love with his books with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, and then moved on to others. I read his Otherland series many years ago when I was still on a student-borrow-books-from-the-library sort of budget. I have finally managed to collect copies of all of these books and decided this was the year I would finally reread them.

It was a huge bonus then, when I was able to fit each of them into prompts for the 2019 Reading Challenge, both the Popsugar and ATY challenges. Book one, City of Golden Shadow, I read for Popsugar’s prompt #8, a book about a hobby (online gaming); book two, River of Blue Fire, for ATY’s prompt #17, a speculative fiction; book three, Mountain of Black Glass, for ATY #19, a book by an author with more than one book on my TBR (I have eleven of his books on my list for this year!); and book four, Sea of Silver Light, for ATY #22, a book from the ATY polarizing/close call list – a book where the protagonist enters another world.

There is a lot going on in this massive series (four books totaling over three thousand pages!) which is really one long story. It follows multiple main characters – a young, professional woman from Africa, an African bushman, a teenage boy with progeria, an aged former test pilot, and many more. Even the “villain” is not so straight forward as all that, but there is layer upon layer of opposition that confronts the main characters.

The story opens with Renie Sulaweyo – an African professor working with virtual reality technology – and her widowed father and younger, dependent brother. Something happens to her brother while he is playing online with friends that puts him into a coma. Trying to help her brother, Renie sets off to figure out what put him into the coma in the first place. Her search leads her to a new form of virtual reality technology that has been secretly developed over the past decade or so. She learns her brother isn’t the only child to be affected in this way. Something sinister is going on and she intends to find out what.

Her path leads her to this new network, known as The Grail Network. But this super secret network is impossible to break into. Until an encounter brings her, along with several others into contact with someone who can get them into the network. Once there, however, they are trapped online and must move forward to find answers in order to make it out again.

This network consists of a huge number of virtual worlds. Anything seems to be possible here, from recreated fictional worlds such as Carroll’s Wonderland to Coleridge’s dream world Kubla Khan. There exists a warped version of Oz, a grotesquely corrupted wild west, an ancient Egypt ruled by the god Osiris, and even a bizarre cartoon world. Williams shows himself a master world builder in this series, as each world is flawlessly detailed, each complete with their own set of rules.

The Otherland series is set in a future world where fully immersive virtual reality gaming and other internet-based activities have been fully realized. Published between 1998 and 2001, the future tech is well imagined, and even by today’s standards feels impressively futuristic, and has stood well against the advances in real world technology. Though I was momentarily dropped out of the “voluntary suspension of disbelief” by the very brief reference to hunting for replacement batteries to power a hand held mobile device.

Otherland, like most of Tad Williams’s books, is massive. It is rich in detail, that for some might slow down the action. For myself, I love it. I can’t help but be fully engaged in the world he has created. His characters are beautifully drawn, and I need to know what happens to them. I will read anything written by Tad Williams, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: A Review

Prompt #41 on the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge is to read a book from the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards. I don’t usually seem to be on the same page as most folks voting on these awards, as the ones I choose never seem to win. However, the voting process for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards involved voting on the “best of all time” books. In this category was The Martian, by Andy Wier. I’ve wanted to read this book since I saw the movie some years back.

In this book, Weir tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Only six days into the mission, severe weather forces the team to abandon the planet. In the process, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. It turns out, he did not die. And thus begins his harrowing tale of survival.

The story is told primarily through mission logs that Watney continues to keep, perhaps mostly from force of habit and training. As a character, Mark Watney is fantastic. His sense of humor carries him through his ordeal.

Weir includes a lot of plausible sounding science. I don’t know how much of it is accurate, but it feels accurate, giving weight to the story and the mortal peril Watney is in at all times. The potentially dry sciencey bits are well tempered with real suspense and of course, the humor.

This is one of those rare occurrences where the book and the movie are equally entertaining. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, you will probably enjoy the book as well. And same goes the other way around. Quite simply, this is a great book.

Warcross, by Marie Lu: A Review

I had been looking forward to reading Warcross, by Marie Lu for some time. So when I came across the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #39, a book revolving around a puzzle or game, I was excited to finally make reading it a priority. From the Goodreads blurb:

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. … Hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. … Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action.

Warcross tells the story of Emika Chen, a down-on-her-luck hacker and bounty hunter living in Manhattan. Her rent is due and her last bounty got scooped by another hunter, so Emika finds herself taking desperate and risky action to avoid being thrown out on the streets. Expecting to get arrested for her trespass, Emika is stunned to receive a call from the game’s creator instead – with a job offer.

Emika ends up transported to Tokyo where she is inserted into the Championships as a player. She’s there to uncover a security problem, but finds something much more sinister instead.

The game descriptions are phenomenal and the action is fast-paced and fun. While I enjoyed this book, and will read the sequel eventually, it was a bit predictable. It wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped.

Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French: A Review

When I saw ATY’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #30, a book featuring an elderly character, I instantly thought of Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French. I’ve had this book in my e-library since shortly after it was released, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to read it. This book, second in the series The Investigative Paranormal Society, features a group of men in their 60s who help people in their community with ghostly or demonic problems.

In this book, the members of the Investigative Paranormal Society are approached by a land developer who is interested in acquiring a certain property in order to build a casino. The property has a long history of disaster and misfortune, and there are rumors of paranormal activity. At the same time, one of their members is dealing with a personal crisis from his past that impacts his effectiveness as part of the team.

The characters is this story have depth and history. They feel like real people. I couldn’t help but get caught up with them in their investigations, especially as things took a dangerous turn. The suspense in this book is great.

I read the first book, Maledicus, some time back and though that book wasn’t quite all I’d hoped for, I was intrigued by French’s idea of a group of retired gentlemen who fought ghosts. I knew I would check out the next book, and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed book two very much. I’m looking forward to the next installment of the Investigative Paranormal Society.

A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson: A Review

It was not hard to find a book to fit Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #20, a book set in space. I love science fiction, and my shelves are full of books that qualify. I ended up choosing A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson, book one in the series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Someone in my book club stumbled on this series and presented it to the rest of us as a really fun read. We even made arrangements for the author herself to come to one of our meetings, and so this book jumped to the top of my space book options.

In this series opener, we meet Ia, a precog who is plagued by visions of the future where her home world is devastated. In order to prevent this from coming to pass, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military. This first installment encompasses Ia’s enlistment, initial training and her first tour of duty.

There is a lot of world building involved in this first book, and I had some difficulty getting into the story. Still, it is well written, with a great deal of realistic detail, especially in regards Ia’s basic training experiences. I think the bigger payoff will be in the remainder of the series where the story can develop further on this foundational world building.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet Jean Johnson in person and talk with her about her books and her experiences as an author. I look forward to reading the rest of this series and more by Jean Johnson. Besides this military sci-fi novel, I also had the opportunity to check out another of Johnson’s series – a paranormal romance series, the Sons of Destiny. This series is also a lot of fun.

The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket: A Review

For the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #3, a book written by a musician, I chose to read The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket. I chose this book because it was the only one I found on my shelves that fit the category. I started the Series of Unfortunate Events last year, reading the books aloud with my eldest son, and he has been happy to continue it with me.

Book two finds the unhappy Baudelaire orphans in a new home with a new guardian, their Uncle Monty (who isn’t truly their uncle). Uncle Monty is a collector of reptiles, and is delighted to introduce his new charges to his passion. For a while, things seem to be going well for the Baudelaires, especially after the disastrous events of book one. They even begin to think they could be happy here.

However, it isn’t long before their nemesis, Count Olaf arrives on the scene. But he has disguised himself as Uncle Monty’s newly hired assistant, and no one but the children recognize his true identity. And so it falls once more to the children to save themselves.

I enjoy Lemony Snicket as the narrator of these books. He uses sarcasm, dark humor and a sense of the ridiculous to tell his stories. He often breaks into the story with a side note about his own woes, or to define a word or phrase. While this particular episode has not been my favorite so far, I have continued with the series, and I’m still having fun. If you enjoy a bit of dark humor, this series could be for you.

Enchantée, by Gita Trelease: A Review

I struggled to find a book for ATY’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #10, a book featuring an historical figure. There were few books that I already own that would qualify, and fewer still that interested me enough to add them to my list for 2019. Somewhere along the way, I encountered the book, Enchantée, by Gita Trelease and was drawn in by the premise. When I learned Marie Antoinette, of French Revolution fame, is featured in this book, I decided to give it a go.

Enchantée takes place in 1789 Paris, but an alternate Paris where magic is real. It is the story of Camille as she struggles to survive in a pre-revolution Paris. Orphaned when small pox took both her parents, it falls to Camille to care for her younger sister while struggling to protect herself from an older brother who has turned to drink and gambling. Magic is her only hope. With it, she can turn ordinary metal objects into coins with which to purchase food and other necessary supplies.

A series of events lead her to a more desperate situation where she is forced to turn to a darker magic her mother had forbidden her to use. Camille is soon drawn into a world of plotting and intrigue that she is ill prepared for.

Trelease has written a fantastic story and placed it within an intriguing location at a dangerous time in history. She’s filled this world with compelling characters, each with their own goals, desires, struggles and triumphs. There is a perfect balance of magic, intrigue and romance contained in this story. I was thoroughly charmed by this book, swept off to a magical Paris from the very first page. Quickly drawn in by the girls’ desperate situation and hooked by the romance, I finished this book in only a few days.

This is Trelease’s debut novel. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, intrigue and romance. I look forward to what comes next for this author.