KOKO TAKES A HOLIDAY, by Kieran Shea: Patreon-supported review

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea
Titan Books, ISBN 978-1783298990, 350pp, MMPB, USD$7.99/CAN$10.49. June 2015. Cover artist not given.

Koko Takes a Holiday is Kieran Shea’s first novel. And for a first novel? It’s actually not bad.

Ex-corporate mercenary Koko Martstellar is enjoying an easy early retirement as a brothel owner on the Sixty Islands, a resort known for sex, violence, and its management’s homicidal attitude towards discipline problems among their direct employees. Koko’s enjoying the good life, until her old comrade-in-arms (and current rising Sixty Islands management star) Portia Delacompte sends a squad of security personnel to kill her.

Koko, however, is better at violence than the people sent to kill her. She escapes the Sixty Islands to a set of floating habitats known as the Free Zone, where the Sixty Islands aren’t supposed to be allowed to send a bounty hunter after her. If Koko didn’t run into any more trouble, though, this would be a much shorter novel: soon she has not one but three bounty hunters on her tail. Hers and her almost-unwilling accomplice, an ex-cop who had been planning to kill himself until Koko put a gun to his head. And pretty soon after that, she’s got nowhere to run, except right back to the Sixty Islands to confront Delacompte over this peculiar vendetta, and either kill or be killed.

The peculiar part comes from the fact that Delacompte voluntarily had parts of her memory erased, so she can’t remember why she’s trying to have Koko killed. Koko, on the other hand, can remember everything about her association with Delacompte, but she has no idea why Delacompte would wait until now to try to have her done in.

That’s the weakest part of the book, actually, the bit that makes the least sense. The rest is batshit pulp violence in a recovering-from-the-apocalypse landscape, but Delacompte’s tactics for dealing with Koko make no sense if Delacompte’s supposed to be even a little smart — and the narrative says she’s a smart enough sociopath to succeed in her environment.

So what did I think of it?

This is basically Quentin-Tarantino-as-SF-novel. Not that I’ve seen much Tarantino, but the style did seem consistent across my sample set of three. It reads as though it were written by someone who watched Kill Bill, said, “Awesome! But less coma, less weird relationship shit, more SF, and can we make the people who are trying to kill each other all women, no, really all of them?” and went off to make their own orgy of stylised hyperviolence.

This is a novel in which biting people’s eyes out is a thing. A ritual of hand-to-hand combat. Not just random eye-biting! But eye-biting as the trophy-taking mark of a subculture! This is a novel in which depressed folks living in floating habitats high in the atmosphere are encouraged to commit organised mass suicide at regular intervals. This is a novel in which shooting a random civilian barely even moves the morally dubious shit going down here dial, there’s so much else going on in the way of violence and murder.

That should give you some idea of whether or not it’s for you.

My own feeling is that it’s trying too hard. It lays the “life is cheap, death is easy, killing is fun,” on a little too thick: it’s about as deep as a puddle. It’s also trying a little too hard to be… sexy? I guess? I don’t know, there’s one unfortunate “woman examines herself in mirror and remarks on her own breasts” moment. And I have the subliminal impression that the reader is supposed to find these several murderous women fighting and killing each other to be titillating, even if the text doesn’t dwell on their appearance too much. It is, however, entirely possible that I’m reading that in to the text: I might be a jaundiced reader.

But for all its flaws — this is not a novel that wants you to slow down and think too hard about it or its setting — it has a certain gleeful pulp sensibility that’s very appealing. And an energetic approach to pacing.

I didn’t love it. I don’t know that I’d even recommend it, except under very limited circumstances. (Do you like VIOLENCE and LIBERTARIAN POST-APOCALYPSES? Then this is FOR YOU!)

But I’m pretty tempted to read the sequel.

This review comes to you via the kind support of my Patreon supporters. Want more reviews, more often? Support!

Review copies arrived

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren't you lucky?

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren’t you lucky?

Courtesy of Oxford University Press, that’s Ulf Schmidt’s SECRET SCIENCE: A CENTURY OF POISON WARFARE AND HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. Courtesy of Talos Books, that’s Loren Rhoads’ KILL BY NUMBERS (I want to read this trilogy, I do, I NEED MORE TIME). And courtesy of Orbit Books, we have Ann Leckie’s amazing ANCILLARY MERCY.

People having thoughts about THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT

Both Amal El-Mohtar and Arkady Martine enjoyed it significantly more than I did.

Amal has something important to say about responses to THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, while Arkady turns a very penetrating gaze on its thematic arguments.

I think THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT is proving to be an interesting book to think with, and to think about, despite – or perhaps because of – how very angry it made me. Baru Cormorant herself, the titular main character, is a monster. Perhaps the most monstrous protagonist I’ve ever read. And not in the simplistic fashion of so many grimdark-type antiheroes, either. She’s a sympathetic monster. An understandable monster. The monster in the mirror, writ large: all our compromises with power for the sake of security, for the sake of personal advancement, for the hope of changing the system from within, rendered in mass murder and personal betrayals. I think Dickinson is trying to explore some very difficult thematic territory, and trying at the same time to sustain fairly radical literary politics. If he fails in many respects at both –

Well, it’s an ambitious failure. There’s much to be said for that.

Assorted links for Friday

Strange Horizons is having their yearly fundraiser. They also have a Patreon account. Perhaps support them, for they are interesting and smart.

Politico says: “Beware Europe’s automotive-political complex.”

Catherine Lundoff has “Some thoughts about Tragic Queer Narratives.”

Aliette de Bodard has smart thoughts “On colonialism, evil empires, and oppressive systems.”

And the BBC reveals “The bitter story behind the UK’s national drink.”

Books arrived: SEED SEEKER

It's not just my terrible camerawork: the lettering really *is* like that.

It’s not just my terrible camerawork: the lettering really *is* like that.

Pamela Sargent’s SEED SEEKER, courtesy of Tor Books. The press release with this one opens “Dear Booklover.” Is this a new standard salutation? Because it makes me want to say, “I swear, I’m not erotically into novels…”

LUNA by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald, Luna (US: Luna: New Moon), Gollancz UK/Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

The thing that lets me enjoy so much science fiction is that I don’t actually bother to pay attention to much science. Helium 3 mining on the Moon? Effects of lower gravity on humans? Tell me anything you like, I will suspend my disbelief while you entertain me! So, really, understand by this that I have no idea how plausible any of McDonald’s science in Luna is – but the story’s entertaining as all hell.

This is a complex, multi-stranded novel full of interesting characters and fascinating asides, set on a Moon that resembles a libertarian paradise – or hellhole, depending on which end of the wealth spectrum you’re on. (The only law is contract law.) It follows the Corta family/corporation, who’re the newest (and possibly the brashest) of the moon’s five great families. None of the characters are particularly nice people, but they’re all compelling and believable.

Then things start blowing up.

The most fun thing about this book, though, is how it treats the social aspects. McDonald’s thought about what a future enclosed society might look like, how it’ll treat gender and sexuality and marriage (all negotiable, in whatever configuration suits), what’ll count as wealth and poverty. This isn’t one of those SF novels that transposes the 1950s-1970s to shiny tech future – not that I’d expect McDonald to do that, anyway.

Good book. I liked it lots.

POSEIDON’S WAKE by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds, Poseidon’s Wake. Gollancz, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

Third in trilogy. I haven’t read the first two, so walking in to this was a lot like coming in to a play in the middle of the second act – but it stands as a complete thing in its own right very well. Reynolds has improved greatly since the last time I read one of his novels (which would be going on eight years ago by now, so that’s unsurprising), or this novel is working with material which I’m a lot more primed to like. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Multiple different machine intelligences, scientific journeys of discovery, sentient intelligent elephants, excellently interesting characters.

“The Terror,” which shows up towards the end as an alien intelligence’s protective mechanism to turn other people away from the record of their reaction to the knowledge that the universe will ultimately destroy itself… Well, it’s described in terms that mirror my periods of depression almost exactly. You mean there are people who don’t live with the knowledge that everything is doomed to annihilation and futility, and posterity is a myth and a lie? (Most of the time, I find the point in life is to be kind to other sentient beings and to do as little harm – and have as much fun – as possible, because kindness and being as good a person as possible are things that are worthwhile for their own sake, for the now that we have.) So I’m not sure the conclusion is as profound as it seems to think it’s reaching for.

But, you know. It’s a good book. I might have to read the first books in the trilogy now.

Review copies recently arrived



That’s WEIGHING SHADOWS, by Lisa Goldstein.

OLD MARS, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, and A DAUGHTER OF NO NATION, by A.M. Dellamonica.

OLD MARS, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, and A DAUGHTER OF NO NATION, by A.M. Dellamonica.

Here’s OLD MARS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and A.M. Dellamonica’s A DAUGHTER OF NO NATION.



And there’s DEADLANDS: GHOSTWALKERS by Jonathan Maberry, and THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. (Though I already received an ARC of that last, and, well. It’s technically very good, and emotionally I reacted extremely negatively to it.)

DRAGON HEART by Cecelia Holland

Reviewed over at Tor.com.

Dragon Heart is a tragedy. An interesting tragedy, at that. But I can’t bring myself to actually like it. It has great characterisation, compelling prose… but it feels peculiarly old-fashioned, and I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve read this story before, that someone else has already done something really similar. (Patricia McKillip, maybe?) And there’s that pervasive undertone of sexual coercion, of violence and violation, that left me—especially at the conclusion—with a greasy, soiled feeling

Alyc Helms, THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN: Patreon not-a-review

This post is brought to you by the generous support of my Patreon backers.

If what follows is slightly more incoherent than is good for it, it is because it was written when I’d lost 2.5kg due to illness in five days. (I’m still recovering.) This is meant to explain, not excuse.

Alyc Helms, The Dragons of Heaven. Angry Robot Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of Angry Robot Books.

This is not actually a proper review, because I did not finish the book. As I mentioned in a post on Patreon a while ago, I was finding The Dragons of Heaven tedious and unappealing fare. This is not to say it is a bad book: in a different season, with different pressures on me, and if I were not ill, I might find it entertaining enough (at least entertaining enough to finish). Then again, I might not.

The Dragons of Heaven is, in this copy, 376 pages long. I have read 130 of them, and find that sufficient to declare it really Not For Me.

I didn’t realise, when I cracked its spine, that The Dragons of Heaven involved superhero narratives married to what feels like a classic urban fantasy tone. The voice, too, feels like the voice of an urban fantasy narrator: edging up on hard-boiled and noir-ish, but not quite, and taking itself a little too seriously for me to really take it seriously. But then, I’ve never quite been able to get the appeal of superhero narratives — and superhero stories in which a young woman (and street magician) from San Francisco goes to China in search of the Chinese dragon who trained her grandfather in the powers that led to him taking on a superhero persona, hoping to find training in turn, are an even harder sell.

*loses train of thought*

*finds it again*

Okay. Right. Missy Masters is the granddaughter of superhero Mr. Mystic. He disappeared — dead or missing. She decided to follow in his footsteps and use the powers she’s inherited to be a superhero herself.

The chapters alternate between past and present: present Missy has taken on her grandfather’s superhero persona and has got herself involved in an ongoing conflict with the local branch of organised Chinese crime, headed up by a bloke called Lao Chan. Which also involves magic. Or superpowers. Or both. Then she interrupts Lao Chan in the middle of a ritual involve the “guardians” of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Shortly after this, some kind of mystical barrier goes up around a) China b) lots of Chinatowns across the world, and Missy figures out these barriers are related to the ritual she interrupted. She has to go to China and figure out how to take the barrier back down, before something terrible happens.

Past Missy is a bit of a wannabe superhero. One night she gets in over her head, intervening in a conflict between a rather better-trained superhero and …someone with excellent training who isn’t a hero. She ends up hurt, and having thoroughly screwed up, decides she needs training. So, off to China, to search for the dragon who trained her grandfather. Along the way, she’s travelling with a tour group who end up trapped by a monster in a teahouse. (I’m not entirely sure what was the point of teahouse monster fight, or tour group people.) And then she encounters the dragon, who seems to be in the form of a young, pretty man. And I’m afraid I rather felt my hackles go up. Oh, yes, I spy a love interest! says I to myself. One who’s probably going to come with all sorts of familial and cultural complications, but I don’t see why a dragon would give any uninvited visitor the time of day, to be honest.

I don’t know if I spied a love interest correctly or not. Flicking ahead to the final pages certainly seems to imply some romantic connection between Missy and the dragon bloke. Who seems to have some kind of family connection to the figure behind the organised crime folks. Or something.

But to be honest, the reason I don’t want to read on? Is that I feel absolutely no emotional connection with the characters. Missy falls flat. In 130 pages, there’s not another significant character who comes across as really interesting. The past-present back and forth of the interwoven chapters? They don’t support each other with tension and thematic argument, not in any way that comes across to me. They confuse and drag: there are too many characters, and not enough connection. I can’t feel any reason to care, because it all seems like meaningless rushing about.

Charitably, this might be more to do with me than with the book: illness and pressure does odd things to my brain. On the other hand, it could just be that I really don’t care about any of these people and their rushing-about.