The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There’s a line in the movie Jurassic Park, spoken by Dr. Ian Malcom, that I will always remember: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.” This line is the perfect summary for so many Faustian tales. It’s definitely true for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest amazing novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, inspired by another classic Faustian story The Island of Doctor Moreau. But where those stories focus on the Faust character and his moral dilemmas, Moreno-Garcia puts the emphasis squarely on the fallout of a scientist’s careless meddling with the natural order.

Jules Verne’s island, in this version, is a remote corner of the Yucatán peninsula. It is isolated by dense jungle and fears of Mayans rebelling against oppressive landowners. The only contact the eponymous daughter, Carlota Moreau, and her father and their companions have with the outside world are occasional visits from the man who funds Doctor Moreau’s hacienda and his research. We meet Carlota just before another visit from Señor Lizalde, who has arrived with a new assistant and another exhortation for Doctor Moreau to give him something he can actually use to recoup his investment. The new assistant, Montgomery (and our second narrator, after Carlota), was hired to keep an eye on the doctor as much as anything else.

Up until this point, if you didn’t know about The Island of Doctor Moreau, it would be easy to ignore the hints that something very strange is going on at the Moreau’s hacienda. There are hints that, apart from the Moreaus and their housekeeper, the other inhabitants are not entirely human. We only learn the truth from Montgomery’s reaction when he meets one of the sentient animal hybrids the doctor has created. It seems as though Doctor Moreau has been tinkering with genetics, although he never calls it that. His creations are not healthy. They’re in pain. They have short lives. All Doctor Moreau really cares about is perfecting his methods, so he doesn’t have much to do with the hybrids he’s created so far. Carlota does the caring for him.

Illustration from a 1904 Russian edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau bounces back and forth between Carlota and Montgomery narrating events. From Carlota, we find a deep love of others and the hacienda. She worries about everyone but is stymied by her father’s controlling ways; she can’t do much more than try to keep the show running while he works in his lab. On Montgomery’s side, we get a lot of confusion over what on earth is happening. He eventually settles in. He cares, too, but his prickly personality doesn’t let him show it. Through their eyes we see events start to escalate. Señor Lizalde wants his money and the hybrids, promised to him as workers by Moreau. His son, who turns up following rumors of Mayan revels, suddenly decides that he wants the beautiful Carlota. Before long, it’s impossible for anyone to hide away at the hacienda.

This summary isn’t capturing the sweltering, hypnotic atmosphere of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Carlota in particular is an amazing narrator. I loved spending time with her, even if she shares her father’s stubbornness and can be just as prickly as Montgomery at times. In addition to watching events through her eyes, we see Carlota grow up from a sheltered child to a fierce young woman. She struggles against her conditioning to obey, not make a fuss, and her sense of duty towards others. And the best part of watching her grow is seeing Carlota find hidden, possibly animal, depths.

I’m still not describing this fantastic book correctly. Go read it. Trust that Moreno-Garcia has delivered another brilliant, engrossing, psychologically deep, beautifully detailed story. This book is one of her best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart

It’s no surprise that, if time travel were to be invented, it would probably only be accessible by the ultra-rich. January Cole, the protagonist of Rob Hart’s outstanding novel The Paradox Hotel, has the misfortune of running security at an enterprise that offers tours of the past for wealthy, entitled people she despises. She’d quit, except that the Hotel is the only place where she can catch glimpses of her deceased girlfriend. Her grief and the behavior of the guests has pushed January to the brink of her patience…which means it’s the perfect time for the hotel to host a summit for a senator and four of the richest men in the world as they bid on the technology that makes time travel possible. And then, the dinosaurs show up.

Something is very wrong at the Paradox Hotel. It turns out that, even though there are hundreds of rich people queued up to take a trip in to the past, the Hotel isn’t turning a profit. The US government is planning to sell off the technology to recoup their investment. The four candidates all have different plans for time travel, plans that all involve breaking the cardinal run of “look but don’t touch.” But it seems that someone else has already broken that rule as each of the candidates is almost murdered before the auction can even start. Keeping people safe is infinitely more difficult when the assassin is able to bend the rules of time.

January is one of the prickliest characters I’ve ever met in fiction, at least since Lisbeth Salander. She’s a jerk to everyone, even her friends. Because we ride along with her for the entire book, we know all of the hurt January is trying to conceal. We also learn that January is trying to hide the fact that she’s come Unstuck, which means that her perception of events is out of sync with everyone else’s. This unfortunate side effect of her earlier service in the Time Enforcement Authority turns out to be a boon against a time-hopping killer. Her slips through time give her just enough hints to keep herself alive. And also catch those dinosaurs.

Perhaps the best reason to read this book is the powerful ending. I love a science fiction book that can, first, bend my mind with the plot and then, second, hit me with a beautiful, emotionally intense payoff that pulls all of those wild plot threads together to land a perfect conclusion. I don’t want to ruin it by saying anything else. So I’ll just say, if you like time travel, science fiction blended with Buddhism, and a star-crossed love story, run (don’t walk) to pick up The Paradox Hotel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Wagers, by Sean Michaels

The ancients used to think of luck as a supernatural force. I find it hard to argue with them. Luck is fickle. Sometimes we try to woo it to our side by not shaving or not changing our socks or carrying around a lucky charm. Luck is a lot more identifiable in Sean Michaels’s The Wagers, but no less mysterious. In the world of Theo Potiris, part-time grocer and comedian, luck is a finite resource and he is one of luck’s losers. We see him drifting through life until a chance (heh) encounter with a group of luck thieves makes him finally realize what makes him happy in life. At least, that’s what I think this book is about. It’s muddled.

Theo has a ritual. Before he goes on stage at his local comedy club, he places a bet. The ritual isn’t for luck. It’s more of a habit than anything else. And this might be the most interesting thing about Theo. He’s not particularly funny, since he doesn’t hone his jokes, and he doesn’t have much ambition in his day job at the family grocery store. His mother’s death near the beginning of The Wagers shakes him up somewhat, but it’s his relationship with Simone that really gets him out of his rut. Simone, we learn, is the member of a gang thieves who steal luck. Yes, you read that right. They steal luck. In this world, luck manifests as sand that makes the improbable a lot more probable. Luck is mostly good, although this sand also seems to make it more likely that birds will poop on you.

The Wagers is slow to start. Things pick up after Theo starts to run heists with the luck gang (this really is the best part of the book), but the ending completely (at least for me) undid a lot of the momentum and quirkiness that had been building. The shift in tone made me flip back a couple of pages to check if I had missed anything. I hadn’t. The rushed ending left me wondering what all the preceding pages had been for. This, paired with the odd pacing throughout The Wagers soured me on this book, sadly.

Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North

Notes from the Burning Age is the latest novel from Claire North, one of the most thoughtful and creative writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading. (I really hope that she starts getting more attention from critics and readers.) In the past, her books have tackled death (The End of the Day), choices (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August), crime and class (84K), race and curses (The Pursuit of William Abbey). All of these—including Notes from the Burning Age—use their various premises to explore the long-lasting consequences of choices we made. This is more than just turning left instead of right trousers of time stuff. The choices North explores in her novels are more like the choices we make when we’re convinced we’re right. In Notes for the Burning Age, the choices are the ones made by humans who are determined to conquer the natural world at the cost of destroying earth.

Notes from the Burning Age is set centuries in the future. Civilization as we know it is gone, destroyed when creatures (known as kakuy) rose out of the devastation of pollution and smashed everything. Humans preserved as much knowledge as they could, but most technology is beyond their descendants. To avoid a new “Burning Age,” humanity now mostly lives under a form of eco-socialism. They live in harmony nature because they’re scared witless of doing otherwise. This means that people live in small communities and small cities. They’re careful not to mine too deep for minerals or chop down too many trees. Humans being humans, however, there are some people who want to bring back internal combustion engines and submarines and nuclear weapons. Our protagonist, Ven, works as a secretary and translator of ancient knowledge to one such man, Georg. We learn some ways into the novel that Ven is a spy sent to bring Georg down before the kakuy come back and send humanity back to the stone age, rather than, say, semi-medieval but with cool, eco-friendly technology and a ton of recycling.

There are some absolutely gripping action sequences in Notes from the Burning Age to leaven the long discussions between Ven, Georg, and others about the role humanity should play on the earth. Some of these dialogues verge on the preachy, I have to say (even though I am very much in sympathy with any efforts to ameliorate climate change and avert the worst of the potential destruction). Georg reveals that he has always felt stifled by the way that religion and government have squelched people he believes are talented enough to deserve more than an ordinary life. Ven answers Georg’s arguments with philosophy learned at the Temple (a non-theist, sort of religious path followed by most people in Ven’s time) that just because humans might be special, it doesn’t mean that they have license to pollute, overharvest, or take resources from others so that their lives can be more luxurious and comfortable. North is a lot more eloquent than I am, of course, but it’s very clear who we’re supposed to sympathize with fairly early on in Notes from the Burning Age. I would’ve liked a little more nuance to the two positions, since I suspect that readers who aren’t already in favor of trying to ward off climate change and its effects might get annoyed by this book.

What interested me most about Notes from the Burning Age were the details of what life might look like if humans were forced or chose to change how we use the earth and its resources. Is that even possible for our species? Can we find a way to preserve what’s good about technology (medicine, communication, etc.) and shed the bad (pollution, overharvesting, habitat destruction, etc.)? I like to think that it’s possible. I just really hope that we don’t have to survive a burning age to get there.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The 22 Murders of Madison May, by Max Barry

Traditional mysteries generally present one murder, with maybe some additional deaths as the plot unspools. Thrillers generally offer a few more although most of those are collateral damage that most authors don’t spend too much time on. Those expectations go completely out when you relocate those genres into something as bonkers as Max Barry’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. There is one victim—as in most mysteries. But that one victim lives in multiple realities that the protagonists (and the killer) can jump to with the use of a not-explained doohickey. That’s when the thriller part kicks in; characters move from one universe to another in a dizzying and deadly game of chase.

Although Madison May gets top billing in the book title, Felicity Staples spends more time in the spotlight. Felicity is a politics reporter at a small newspaper that’s just hanging on. She definitely doesn’t do crime reporting—at least until a call comes in when the guy whose job it is is out and there’s no one else to do the reporting. The call is for the grisly murder of a real estate agent in an open house. There’s not much of a mystery. Due to security precautions, the cops know who did it and even have a photo. No one knows why Clayton Hors killed Madison May. Not until the plot really gets rolling and characters start to muck around in the multiverse.

There’s a lot of that’s not explained in The 22 Murders of Madison May: the universe-travel doohickies, what the shadowy organization that’s following Madison and Clayton is all about, plus a whole lot of downstream effects of universe-jumping. There are also a lot of things that aren’t developed: many of the characters are a bit on the stock side, the plot is a runaway train, plus a whole lot of potentially interesting downstream effects of universe-jumping. I usually don’t complain about books being too fast. But this book is too fast. I saw quite a few places where Barry could’ve played around more with possibilities. To his credit, there were some places where Barry let the characters pause for breath to think about whether or not jumping worlds has potentially fatal consequences for their other-selves. There just aren’t enough of them and the ones there are don’t go far enough.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve seen these kinds of do-over/multiverse plots before, and done better than Barry has managed here. (I’m thinking of The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton.) I know authors have to be careful about what they read, so as not to be accused of plagiarism, and that it’s impossible to read everything that comes out—so I can’t really blame Barry for not knowing about other books that might bear similarities to The 22 Deaths of Madison May. And I do feel a bit bad being this negative. Unfortunately, I have to say that if you’re interested in imaginative mysteries that give the protagonists to try and change history, I have other recommendations for you.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Defekt, by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri’s Finna introduced us to the bigger-on-the-inside shopping emporium LitenVärld, a store so large that it warps reality into occasionally opening wormholes to other, even stranger versions of the superstore. The adventures continue in Defekt. I’ve been waiting for a sequel ever since I finished Finna; I love Cipri’s imaginative, inclusive, satirical brain. This follow-up is absolutely perfect.

Derek has one ambition. He wants to be the best—friendliest, most productive, most helpful—employee at LitenVärld. Given LitenVärld’s expectations of its employees, this would be a big challenge even for someone who feels the need to practice his facial expressions and intonation in the mirror every morning before he heads to work from the shipping container in the parking lot where he lives. Still, even though some of his co-workers find him a little too sincere for comfort, Derek seems to be succeeding. At least, until Derek feels bad enough to take his first-ever sick day.

The weird things start happening when a refreshed Derek returns to work. A portal has opened up and swallowed a customer and a coworker, on a shift Derek was supposed to be working. Guilt and a heaping dollop of corporate guilt press Derek into being seconded to a special unit that tracks down and exterminates defective products with extreme prejudice. Because this is LitenVärld, defective products are a lot stranger than a table with a dinged corner or a piece of fabric with a flawed print. The defekta of LitenVärld appear to be alive.

Like Finna, the sheer madcap oddness of Defekt provides a lot of entertainment while the subtext introduces questions of what it means to not fit in with everyone else, finding one’s own identity, and how a group of seemingly powerless entities (for lack of a better word) can stand up to a corporate behemoth. I loved every word of this sweet, goofy, original ride of a novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

One Day All This Will Be Yours, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

One of my favorite mental posers to think about is where and when I might go if I had a time machine. My answer always changes, partly based on how recently I’ve read something about witchcraft trials (which rule out a lot of history for me) or medical history (which rules out a lot the rest). At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would never in a million years think up what the narrator of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s lightning-fast novella, One Day All This Will Be Yours. The narrator has chosen to use his time-traveling equipment to set up shop at the end of time and destroy any other time travelers he can find.

Our narrator is a veteran of the last war humanity will ever fight. At least, that’s what he’s trying to be. In the last war, humans not only invented time travel (used to try and thwart the other side before they could make a move) but also bombs that are capable of shattering causality itself. He tells us his story, his deep dissatisfaction at seeing history come apart around him. As soon as people start messing around with the time stream, history gets overwritten. The other side—and the side the narrator is presumably on—sometimes disappear from one moment to the next. It’s hard to stay loyal when the faces keep changing and the reasons keep shifting. So, there he is, at the end of time, with his pet allosaur and a bunch of farming robots, waiting for time travelers to show up so that he can kill them and wipe out their timeline so that it can never happen again.

Who knows how long things might have continued this way if two travelers hadn’t shown up from the narrator’s own future? This isn’t supposed to be possible. Worse, these travelers claim to be the narrator’s descendants. Even worse than that, these travelers who are the narrator’s descendants are so damned chipper that it sets the narrator’s teeth on edge. The plot kicks into high gear at this point as the narrator begins his plan to un-create the utopia that he apparently unwittingly spawned. This is also where the hijinks start to ensue. The narrator gets into all kinds of shenanigans that had me laughing in spite of myself, especially when he starts to pull baddies out of history to fight for him. (He notes critically that he forgot to include time for team-building exercises.)

One Day All This Will Be Yours was a surprisingly entertaining read, with one flaw. The narrator tells his story a few too many times. Tchaikovsky commits the writerly sin of telling more than showing in this novella. A little more editing on those would’ve left room for what makes this story so much fun: screwing around with history. It’s a relatively small flaw considering how imaginative the rest of the story is. I would recommend it for fans of time travel stories looking for a bit of fun.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

The celebration at the beginning of Sarah Gailey’s novel, The Echo Wife, doesn’t feel like much of a celebration. Protagonist Evelyn Caldwell is there to accept an award for her groundbreaking work but the discomfort from her dress and—more importantly—her recent divorce is ruining her night. It wasn’t until later that I learned things about Caldwell that made me uncomfortable about the accolades she’s received. The uneasiness never goes away. Gailey keeps piling it on in this absolutely brilliant retelling of the Faust story.

Evelyn’s work is secretive, but not entirely secret. She works for a private corporation, producing clones to work as doubles for paranoid politicians, doctors, and others. Her great work is “conditioning” clones so that they look (down to the scars) and act exactly like their originals. She never expected her work to be used against her, but that’s precisely what her ex-husband did. Evelyn’s husband stole her work and created a new version to be a perfect wife. It’s clear that Evelyn is still wrestling with the anger and humiliation of that discovery. One might think that it’s a sign of Evelyn’s better nature that she agrees to help her clone when Martine calls her for help with the kind of favor that we all use as the mark of a great friendship: help hiding a body. Unfortunately for Evelyn, that favor also means using her expertise to replace that body with a living replica.

I could follow every step of Evelyn’s logic, but I would never call it impeccable because it just compounds the wrongness of the whole distressing story. Evelyn sees herself as strong. She remembers how her father conditioned her to never cry, never apologize, never ask forgiveness for her pursuit of knowledge. And she doesn’t. She can only see each challenge that comes her way as a chance to push further into the unknown. Evelyn never really shakes that Faustian drive, although she does start to acknowledge that there are things she should have thought of while she was busy trying to perfect her science. For example, she should have thought about whether the clones she creates have rights or independence or even the ability to grow. Martine and her favors bring Evelyn closer to realizing the ethical dilemmas than the poor creature ever could in Frankenstein.

Even though I was deeply uncomfortable throughout The Echo Wife, I enjoyed every page. Gailey is fantastic in her characterization of Evelyn and Martine. Best of all, Gailey is brilliant in the way that she slowly peels away the layers of the story to reveal delicious ethical dilemmas to think about long after the last page. This is science fiction at its best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to be the henchman. My new favorite book, Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, begins with a call from Anna Tromedlov’s temp agency. Villains (super and otherwise) are hiring getaway drivers, data analysts, Meat (muscular people who like to hit and shoot things), and other positions that keep evil enterprises running. Hench is a fantastic book about the people in the background, when they finally get tired of being cannon fodder.

The call from Anna’s temp agency turns into a job for the Electric Eel, an emotion-obsessed villain looking to make a name for himself. But it all goes to hell on their first big scheme. The unstoppable, invincible Supercollider and his sidekicks arrive to save the day. Anna ends up with a horrifically broken leg and a lot of questions about how much damage those so-called heroes do when they swoop in and start cracking skulls. Anna’s next (unpaid) job is a blog called the Injury Report, which puts real numbers to loss of life, healthcare, and property damage. The blog catches the eye of a real supervillain, the very mysterious Leviathan.

Hench really starts to take off once Anna starts working for Leviathan. She is given free rein to use her knack for data mining and her creative spite to start making life hard for the heroes. One of the blurbs on the hardcover version of Hench says that this book will have you rooting for the bad guys, and that is definitely true. More than once Anna and her friends and fellow henches remark that they are working for the bad guy, but that they don’t feel particularly evil. Besides, Anna has PowerPoints full of numbers showing that the good guys might actually be causing more damage than the bad guys are, in the long run. Those numbers, Anna’s leg, the actions of the increasingly violent heroes will have readers wondering what it really means to be a good or bad guy.

All of this sounds rather serious—and Hench does have serious moments—which doesn’t do credit to how funny this book is. Anna’s dialogue is hilarious. This book had me laughing out loud every few pages as Anna and her friends pointed out the absurdity of their situations, cooked up another hideously funny plot against the superheroes, and banter with each other.

Perhaps the best thing about this already outstanding novel is its ending. I don’t think I can recall another book that got me so invested in the characters that, once we get to the big showdown, my heart was actually pounding for the last fifty-odd pages. When I finished the book, I had to take a couple of moments to unclench my emotions. I really can’t remember the last time a book gripped me so hard. Truth to tell, I really wanted to immediately go back to page one and start over. I can’t gush enough about this book.