Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)

The Paper Menagerie

Author: Ken Liu

Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 453

Series: –

Ken Liu has been known as the translator to Cixin Liu’s critically acclaimed Hugo award winner, The Three-Body Problem. He is also known as the author of a “silkpunk” epic fantasy book, The Grace of Kings. But the readers of short stories know him predominantly as a talented SFF author with his own unique voice and unerring focus on humanity’s past and future, cultural diversity and a peculiar vision of transhumanism. His works won multiple awards, Nebula, Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy Award among them, and I must say that, at least with regards to the collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, he deserves quite a lot of the praise 😉.

This review will vary slightly from my usual posts; as each story or novelette forms a separate whole, I will review each in turn and give score to each separately in short paragraphs.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species 5,5/10

Not a great start to the collection; a showcase of interesting ideas, but nothing really stands out in this fanciful enumeration of how various species in the universe might create/perceive books. It’s a fun exercise, and an invitation to the readers to think about the idea of a book, but nothing more.

State Change 10/10

One of two best stories in the compilation, based on an outlandish and very compelling idea that every person is born with their soul manifested as a concrete, tangible item – and that the form of that item directly affects their personality. A really sweet, light, yet thought-provoking story on how we create our own limits and then learn to transcend them.

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Brian McClellan, Blood of Empire (2019)

Blood of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Title: Blood of Empire

Pages: 672

Format: Paperback

The final installment in the final (at least for now) trilogy in McClellan’s flintlock fantasy series set in the Powder Mage universe, Blood of Empire had to face a slew of high expectations – and I’m happy to say the book meets quite a few of them. After setting the stakes in Sins of Empire, ramping up the pressure in Wrath of Empire, Blood of Empire takes some of the action to another continent entirely, into the heart of the Dynize, while at the same time providing a satisfying array of battles and revolutions in Fatrasta. In short, Blood of Empire offers a fast-paced, high-stakes entertainment and provides an enjoyable conclusion to the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy.

The source of McClellan’s success in the second Powder Mage trilogy lies in my opinion in the creation of a well-composed set of varied, likeable and believable characters. There’s nobody as charismatic and intriguing as Tamas, and let’s be honest – if I were to read a whole book about Taniel, I’d sooner throw it out (shooting myself is out of the question, I have honed my preservation skills to perfection :P). That said, the team of Mad Ben Styke, spy-turned-revolutionary Michael Brevis, and – surprise, surprise – angry wallflower-turned-able general Vlora Flint tries their best to even the field, and they actually come close. It doesn’t hurt that they have a superb supporting cast, with Olem, Ichtracia, Celine, Yaret, Orz and Etepali.

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The Two Polands

We get political from time to time, that’s how we are. Remember this? Or this?

Editorial view of Re-E & a quick background to a rant that follows:

Since 2015 Poland is ruled by the nationalistic/populist Law and Justice party. While they did win every election since, they do that with big help from very political Polish Catholic Church and tightly controlled state media (how does it work? read this Guardian piece by Timothy Garton Ash. He knows this sad part of Europe). They dismantle the rule of law, violate and threaten our freedoms, they are methodically building the sort of populist autocracy Orban already has created in nearby Hungary. The usual right-wing drivel about restoring greatness of the local nation has been combined with the ritualistic hypocrisy of an entrenched Catholic Church whose officials feel threatened and yet still strong enough to hold sway over a non-negligible part of the population, and culminated in one party treating the whole economic, cultural and political system of institutions as “spoils” to be shared among their staunchest supporters.

The recent presidential elections were a chance to do something about it. A democratic president obeying the rule of law could defend the last bits of liberal democracy in Poland, instead of supporting their destruction like the president-elect did for the last 5 years. It would not reverse the current situation, as in Polish political system president has limited power, for the most important ruling body is the lower house of Parliament – but it would have at least checked the autocratic slide.

We came close, closer then ever in recent history. Rafał Trzaskowski (his TEDx speech to be found here), a liberal mayor of Warsaw, our capital city, mobilised almost half of the voters. But almost half is not enough.

IMG_20200708_074447Piotrek: My window, with our guy on Wilhelm Sasnal’s poster.

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Rebecca F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

The Poppy War

Author: Rebecca F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 544

Series: The Poppy War #1

This turned out to be one of the more difficult reviews to write for me. Everybody and their uncle seems awed by Kuang’s debut novel, which reimagined the history of 20th century China into a vengeful fantasy of violence. The Poppy War was one of the rare books bound to become a bestseller, with publishers outbidding each other for the rights to the book. The enthusiasm was not without merit: for the reader from Western sphere of influence, Kuang’s novel presents an undeniably attractive image of China, fueled in equal measures by the elements of Chinese mythos already popularized in Western pop-culture and by the impression of mystery surrounding China as a fabled, distant land. The mythos, and stereotypes, are fairly easy to enumerate: martial arts’ prowess, Chinese zodiac and a large pantheon of demigods and demons, feng shui rooted in a belief of holistic spirituality, snippets of a heroic age long gone, when emperors ruled and Great Wall and Silk Road were built, and a vague concept of a collective social outlook, linked to Confucius. Add to it Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda series and Disney’s Mulan, and maybe some bits and pieces of more contemporary information regarding Chinese communism coupled with the evidence of the irrefutable economic success, and the vision of China in popular culture is more or less complete.

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Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

The Line of Polity

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Line of Polity

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 2

This review was promised in our summary post for 2019, so I actually twisted my right arm with my left to sit down and write it in the middle of sunny summer ;).

Having reviewed both the first installment, Gridlinked, and the third installment, Brass Man, I’m in a bit of a pickle when it comes to choosing the content for this entry. Probably, it would be sufficient to say that The Line of Polity was the book that thoroughly and inevitably sold me on Asher’s Polity universe, and even if I don’t agree with all the political and ideological views of the author, I plan to remain a devoted fan.

Polity is not as pleasant and safe place as Banks’ Culture, nor is it as boring ;). The immense and mind-bogglingly diverse universe (..and I’m sure I could find another -verse fitting here :P) containing Polity, the human society ruled by nearly omniscient AIs, is a wonderful treat for all SF fans. But Asher goes further than just worldbuilding, however impeccable: he creates a world alive – rife with conflict, ambitions, and emotions, not only human, but also AI. And for a series featuring amazing battle sequences, both in the space and on the ground, Asher spends a lot of time considering the sentience. True, his AIs are very human, but reading Polity books I have a feeling they are this way by design, and not simple lack of thought or convenience. After all, they have been created by humans, influenced by the constant contact with humans, and, in a world where alien sentient races are considered more of a myth or a cautionary tale from the past than reality, AIs remain in a direct relation to humans. This relation can morph into a myriad different constellations: a mirror image, a role model, a dependent, spoiled child, a doted-upon prodigy, a master, an apprentice, a pest, a threat, a hobby… Asher deftly shows the variety of responses possible between sentient beings, each of which has something the other doesn’t possess, and subtly incorporates them into his tightly woven narrative.

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