This review was first published by Booklist on February 17, 2023.
In the ninth installment of his Alex Benedict series (after Octavia Gone, 2019), McDevitt changes things up a bit, introducing the possibility of intelligent aliens that aren’t long gone. An exploratory mission to the Orion Nebula uncovers an isolated village of technological humanoids on an inhabited planet, but a follow-up mission finds the village has disappeared without a trace. Without an explanation for its vanishing, many believe the whole thing is a hoax. But Alex, Chase, Gabe, and Chase’s old friend Robbi Jo (who was a member of the original mission that discovered the village) set out to solve the mystery. McDevitt has been labeled “cozy science fiction” and the description is apt: his beloved characters are pleasant and reasonable, with little conflict and good intentions all around. Crises reliably resolve with no lasting damage done. The reward of this book is the compelling central mystery and the continued exploration of the universe McDevitt has constructed. It may not be the most dramatic or exciting of his works, but fans will find what they’re looking for with this one.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is so good! So, so very good!
But it should be much, much better. All I can see now is how far short it falls from what it could have been. I know this isn’t fair to the film and all the amazing, creative people who worked so hard on it. I don’t want to downplay what this movie achieves, but I’m disappointed.
Wakanda Forever wants to be an intimate character study. It has to be a Marvel movie. I wish it didn’t have to be a Marvel movie. The characters deserve a deeper examination than the format allows.
To be clear, I love Marvel movies. Marvel has stretched the constraints of the super-hero action movie as far as any franchise ever. They make character-driven, funny, poignant stories with genuine emotional depth, within a milieu that historically has never achieved that level of artistry. They let their creative staffs get full-on bizarre, daring and inventive, and it works. They embrace their weirdness in a wonderful way. It’s been compelling and rewarding to see this genre evolve.
But there’s only so far you can push things based on the fundamental needs of the genre. And the limits are beginning to constrict, especially for a filmmaker like Coogler.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2023.
It’s summer on Niflheim, and Mickey7 is retired from being the colony’s Expendable. He’s spent the last two years helping tend the rabbits. Then one day, he sees himself heading toward the reactor core. Turns out there’s not enough fuel to last through the next winter, and everyone will die unless he can get back the antimatter bomb Marshall thinks he left with the creepers. But how does he know Marshall is telling the truth? Maybe it’s a ploy to finally get rid of him. Ashton’s follow-up to his excellent Mickey7 (2022) is just as much fun as its predecessor. Readers get to see more aspects of colony life, and Ashton introduces nuances to the creepers while showing us more of their world. The Speaker is a delightful new character, offering an entertaining look at the challenges of communication and mutual comprehension. As in Mickey7, there’s substance behind the humor. At the core of this story are questions of trust and responsibility—what do you do when saving the world means you must betray an ally?
For a list of my favorite books I read this year, go here >
I read 54 books in 2022. It felt like a pretty normal year in reading, for the first time in a while. I read when I wanted to, didn’t when I didn’t, and didn’t overthink it either way, other than to reaffirm my intense dislike of Jack McDevitt. I didn’t watch much TV—my desire for visual storytelling has been subsumed by YouTube, where I follow many channels. I finally went back to a movie theater for the first time since the pandemic started. I missed seeing things on the big screen! I saw Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (so good, but it should have been so much better!)
This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2022.
Carissa minds her own business, living in an elevator in the Building, a structure tens of thousands of stories tall, with entire pocket universes contained on individual floors. One day, an alien shape-shifter lands on top of her elevator, pulling her into a crisis of politics, betrayal, and the looming threat of war. Thus begins a complex tale featuring fractious governments, deep mythological history, a centuries-long soap opera, and gargantuan theme parks. There are aliens, robots, artificially intelligent cloudlet computers, mind control, exploration, magic, and art. Wild Massive is one of the most singular and difficult to summarize books of the year. Moore’s characters are well rendered, and his style is a heady mixture of propulsive plot, sideways humor, and expository asides, with a healthy dose of the proudly bizarre. World building takes undisputed center stage. The Building is compelling, imaginative, expansive, and ridiculous, with a history and creation mythology as unique as the structure itself. Exploring this place is irresistible and deeply rewarding. It will leave readers hoping for more stories set in this world.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2022.
Set in 1899 New York, The Spirit Phone is a cosmic-horror, murder-mystery detective yarn in which Nikola Tesla, famed inventor, and Aleister Crowley, famed occultist, team up to save the world. Along the way, they encounter a cult, people who appear to be clones, and spiritual beings bent on destroying Earth, all centered on a new invention from Thomas Edison which aims to let people speak to the dead. Teleportation, astral projection, Edgar Cayce, a zeppelin, and Devils Tower all make an appearance. O’Keefe’s debut novel certainly serves up a unique blend of elements. He takes some anachronistic liberties, but all in service of the story. The entertainment factor alone alleviates anything that strains credulity, and the action is well paced. Perhaps most rewarding is his evocation of this time and place: new innovations were radically altering the fabric of everyday life, with modern technology like cars and electric lights commingled with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. It was a world made magical and strange, an ideal setting for such a strange tale.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2022.
This time, it starts with an alien bug eating a man’s brain. Then there’s a specter that manifests inside of John’s wall and gets sliced up. So begins an ouroboros of a tale involving cults, alternate time lines, the end of the world, and a possessed plastic toy. This fourth entry in Pargin’s John Dies at the End series is less frenetic than its predecessor, What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017, as David Wong). Within the snarky humor is an incisive commentary on social media and the state of our connected world, and a story about trauma and how people lash out when they’re hurt. It’s a story about love and how people can be better. It’s rewarding to witness how Pargin has grown as a writer. He’s less interested in the gimmick and more focused on his characters. His compassion runs deep. This isn’t just a funny tale of inept supernatural investigators; it’s a story of people struggling through pain to find a better path. Pargin offers us a welcome note of hope.
This review was first published by Booklist on July 29, 2022.
After Mop and crew’s discoveries on Earth, the Prodryans are massed to attack, and the Alliance is falling apart. Mop’s next mission: Tuxatl, the only planet in the galaxy the Prodryans fear, seeking a weapon that can win the war. As usual, what she finds isn’t what she expected: a legendary lost warrior and the Jynx, an intelligent race hiding dark secrets. There is a weapon—but what do you do if using it makes you just as bad as your enemy? While there’s plenty of humor in this installment of Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse (after Terminal Uprising, 2019), it’s not a funny book. Characters face deep personal threats and challenges to their status quo and struggle with significant ethical quandaries; the book achieves impressive emotional depth and moral weight. Hines has a talent for creating interesting aliens, and the Jynx are one of his best yet, with a fascinating culture and backstory. The newest members of Mop’s crew lend some fresh perspectives, and the ending—unexpected as it is—rings true. Hines serves up a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the series.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2022.
A science mission to explore Jupiter discovers something unexpected on the moon Europa and disappears. A chauffeur in Arizona who believes his wife was abducted by aliens gets wrapped up in a covert rescue mission. This sounds like a setup for a standard alien-encounter story; instead, Johnson (Pym, 2011) uses the premise to examine many of the immediate problems facing our society today: intolerance, unearned privilege, religious fundamentalism, corrupt politics, and mass obliviousness. There’s nothing subtle about this work, and some might find it too on the nose, but there is power in addressing these issues so unflinchingly. His writing style is fairly cerebral, which mutes some of the emotional impact, and that’s the point: Johnson has an argument to make, and the story humanizes it enough for it to really hit home. His characters are vivid and compelling, and even the villains retain their full measure of humanity, with motivations that make sense. The ending veers unexpectedly into the fantastical while offering a welcome measure of hope.
This review was first published by Booklist on April 15, 2022.
Greene’s latest is set in an alternate time line where the U.S. and Soviet Union made it to space in the 1950s and fended off an alien attack in the 1960s. Brooklyn Lamontagne, a petty crook who just wants to take care of his mother, joins the Earth Orbital Forces to avoid a prison sentence. Soon he’s swept up in a series of events that uncover a deep secret which could save humankind. Mercury Rising is a rollicking, funny, picaresque adventure novel. It doesn’t follow any predictable path and requires a willingness to go along and see where it takes you. The hero isn’t a typical good guy, but he’s likable and compelling. The secondary characters are all people you want to spend more time with. Most of all, this is a stellar example of effective world building. Greene provides enough detail to make the alternate reality believable and immersive, but he’s not concerned with showing it off. Recommended for fans of old sf-adventure serials and Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015).