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.


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THE ELDER SCROLLS V: THE SKYRIM LIBRARY VOL. 1: THE HISTORIES: not exactly a review

So Titan Books sent me a shiny copy of THE SKYRIM LIBRARY VOLUME 1: THE HISTORIES. I’m not enough, I think, of an Elder Scrolls geek to appreciate it the way it probably deserves – I can see that this would be an interesting resource for people who write Skyrim fanfic, or wanted to run an Elder Scrolls tabletop RPG.

It is prettily designed and elegantly illustrated, and contains the “historical” nuggets one can collect (as books) inside the game. An interesting conceit.

Recently arrived review copies

Seven? Seven stars, and one white tree.

Seven? Seven stars, and seven stones, and one white tree.

I confess myself astonished: Oxford University Press appears to have sent me copies of three volumes of poetry: Eleanor Rees’ BLOOD CHILD, Sarah Corbett’s AND SHE WAS, and Mona Arshi’s SMALL HANDS.

From Titan Books, Jim C. Hines’ FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES and Kieran Shea’s KOKO THE MIGHTY. From Talos Books, Paul Tassi’s THE EXILED EARTHBORN. From Tor Books, Lawrence M. Schoen’s BARSK: THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD.

Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES

Robert Brockway, The Unnoticeables. Tor US/Titan UK, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publishers.

I’m surprised, now I come to read the publicity material, to find The Unnoticeables described in part as horror. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It does remind me, in its split-timeline narrative and engagement with a particular vein of literary Americana, in its tone and in the intrusion of the inexplicable into the relentless quotidian, of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. And that, too, found itself described as horror.

Neither are particularly to my taste, although I find myself with rather more affection towards The Unnoticeables: it has two main viewpoint characters, a bloke called Carey in the 1970s and a stuntwoman in her early twenties in the modern day, Kaitlyn. In their various times, they encounter things that turn people into hollow shells of themselves, or consume them.

I enjoyed Kaitlyn’s point of view chapters. Carey’s… not so much. Carey is a sexist asshole surrounded by other assholes, none of whom appear to do anything with their lives besides drink, fight, fuck, and make fart jokes: I found myself really rather rooting for the angels who wanted to “solve” the problem, or the monsters who wanted to eat them. I’m not entirely sure that’s what the author was going for.

On the other hand, it has good voice, distinctive characterisation, rapid-fire pacing and an interesting conceit. Even if I’m not convinced, in the end, that it made any sense at all.

Abbie Bernstein, THE ART OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Abbie Bernstein, The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’ve read two art-of-the-film books in my life, and this is only the second. The first was The Art of Pacific Rim, and I confess The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road is less impressive, both visually and in terms of discussing the processes and worldbuilding behind putting the worldbuilding together.

I wanted more feminism and more details about filming in a desert, more discussion of stunts and the interrelationship of VFX and SFX. The majority of The Art of Fury Road is character design and cars. It is very pretty, although the layout is kind of crowded, but since I’m only really interested in the cars when they’re on fire, it’s not exactly my ideal delightful thing.

Still. Very pretty.

Bennett R. Coles’ VIRTUES OF WAR

Bennett R. Coles, The Virtues of War. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.

Bennett R. Coles is, according to his bio, a former Canadian naval officer, and Virtues of War is his debut novel. Military SF that starts with what seems like essentially a proxy war between two major powers fought on territory that belongs to a third party, and works its way up to open war.

Although it’s not as human or as nuanced, it reminds me a little of some of David Drake’s earlier work: screwed up humans doing fucked up things under pressure. At the level of fast-paced narrative full of things going boom, this is a pretty good piece of milSF. It has, however, at least a couple of serious flaws.

One is common: the narrative needs to walk the line between depicting atrocity and condoning it, and Virtues of War falters over the line of coming across a little more sympathetic to war crimes when its point of view characters commit them than when “the enemy” do. (In this regard, the fact that all the POV characters wear the same uniform doesn’t help balance the problem.) But I’m willing to give an early novel a little more slack when it comes to getting this right than I might otherwise.

The second issue – more like two issues all rolled in one – however, is one I’m not prepared to cut any slack for at all. There are four point of view characters in Virtues of War, two male, two female: Thomas, Jack, Katja, and Breeze. The former three are reasonably well-rounded characters for a milSF novel. Breeze, however, is a cliché – a misogynist one. She comes straight from central casting: the conniving woman who uses her sexual availability to manipulate the men around her, the REMF who’s both a physical and a moral coward, the woman who’s willing to make a false rape allegation against a fellow officer in order to pressure him into doing things her way, the woman who hates other women as competition.

Do I have to spell out how fucking lazy and clichéd this is? Do I really?

Breeze is also the voice of the novel’s heterosexism/homophobia, perfectly prepared to dismiss other women as “butchy” and “dykes” for not meeting her standards of femininity – and in a novel which does not appear to have any non-heterosexual characters or interactions, I dislike exceedingly the fact that Breeze’s heterosexism is met without comment from any of the other characters. Seriously: maybe we can imagine futures where “dyke” is not a dismissive epithet (when said by an apparently heterosexual woman of another apparently heterosexual woman)?

I like military SF, dammit. I keep hoping for more of it that doesn’t involve having to put up with an unacceptable level of being punched in the face. Coles shows a lot of promise as a milSF writer. But if he can’t up his game and drop the misogynist clichés, next book?

Clearly he’s not the kind of writer who wants my money.

Recently arrived review copies

Five of them!

Five of them!

I’ve been away. I come home after six days to find a stack of review copies waiting for me. No pressure, like?

Courtesy of Tor Books, Max Gladstone’s LAST FIRST SNOW, and ARCs of David Weber’s HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER and Gene Wolfe’s A BORROWED MAN. And courtesy of Titan Books, George Mann’s THE AFFINITY BRIDGE and Bennet R. Coles’ VIRTUES OF WAR.

Recently arrived review copies

Two here.

Two here.

From Skyhorse, Melissa E. Hurst’s THE EDGE OF FOREVER, and from Tor, Ilana C. Myer’s LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT.

One here.

One here.

From Tor, the final book in Jaime Lee Moyer’s debut series, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY.

And three here.

And three here.

And from Titan, Abbie Bernstein’s THE ART OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Rhonda Mason’s THE EMPRESS GAME, and Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES.

Dietz and Titan Books and space opera and rambling

A little while back I mentioned that I wanted to talk more about William C. Dietz’s Andromeda’s Fall and Andromeda’s Choice: what they did well, and what they did poorly.*

But I’ve been thinking about American military space operas that get republished in the UK – Titan Books seems to be the headliner in this, having republished the works of Jack Campbell AKA John Hemry and moved on to Tanya Huff’s Valo(u)r books and Dietz – so this blog post is more of a set of disconnected questions than a coherent essay.

Neither Campbell nor Dietz are particularly innovative writers, or technically accomplished. (Huff is more interesting, but her military space opera never captured my imagination the way say David Drake’s RCN series did.) Both essentially repeat a similar narrative over and over again with little character change or growth, the former with a space navy, and the latter with a space legion étranger. What’s the appeal, and why do there seem to be no homegrown UK military space operas in a similar mode? Because as far as I can tell, SF by UK authors has a rather different focus, tonally and thematically.

Andromeda’s Choice and Andromeda’s Fall are not particularly interesting books, themselves. Their worst failing is that the narrative requires the main character to act stupidly or aimlessly. The narrative fails to commit in terms of consistency of character emotion and action – and prose itself never rises above the pedestrian. The main character, Andromeda McKee, views herself through the lens of the male gaze a little too often – but at least Dietz isn’t entirely preoccupied with breasts.

And yet, for all that, these two books possess some quality that kept me reading: despite their flaws, they’re weirdly fun. And I’m not at all sure why.

*Let’s note that in comparison to Dietz’s Legion of the Damned, they do many things well.

These books also arrived recently

…and I haven’t had the chance to read them yet either.

Fireside reading. Well, as soon as I write more on my thesis.

Fireside reading. Well, as soon as I write more on my thesis.

That’s Ian Tregillis’s Something More Than Night, with absolutely stunning cover art. Year’s Best SF 18, which I don’t expect I’ll manage to read: I’m not good at reading short stuff. Freda Warrington’s A Dance In Blood Velvet (and that’s a title that makes me think of cupcakes). And 21st Century Science Fiction, which I may have mentioned before.

Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters: The Inner Workings of an Epic Film by David S. Cohen, with a foreword by Guillermo del Toro

Review copy provided by Titan Books.

The short version? Wow.

If you, like me, fell head-over-heels in love with del Toro’s grand, epic, gorgeous giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters, co-operation-is-the-key-to-survival summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, this shiny, textured, large paean to its production is undoubtedly relevant to your interests – although at a recommended retail price of stg£29.99, its possession will probably for the most part be limited to those with deep pockets, deeper enthusiasm, or generous friends and relatives.

The first, most striking thing about Man, Machines & Monsters (apart from the unfortunate incidental sexism of the alliterative title) is how beautiful it is. I want to pet it while humming preeeettttty, for the same visual intelligence that made Pacific Rim such an impressively satisfying spectacle is evident here: not just in the stills and concept art, as might be expected, but in layout and design.

The images. They leap off the page. You feel as though you should be able to reach into the book and touch what they depict. So pretty. So many gorgeous stills and concept art. Not enough pictures of the Russians, alas, but plenty of Idris Elba. There are some detachable items: Jaeger badge stickers, copies of pages from del Toro’s notebooks, Jaeger designs and Kaiju sketches, but me, I wouldn’t like to remove them – they’re plenty fine where they are, and compared to the rest of the book, the quality of paper they’re printed on is somewhat lacking.

As for words? There are four sections, integrated with the art. “Monsters in the Mist,” about the script and story and characters. “The Cray Kids in the Submarine,” about the art and design process, particularly designing the Jaegers. “Doing It For Real,” which talks about production and special effects, and makes the point that del Toro built as many sets as the budget could bear – including the inside of the Jaegers, which were mounted on airbags and gimbals to simulate movement. And “Simulating the Apocalypse,” which talks about the visual effects and the sound design, and the process of designing the Kaiju.

Visually stunning. Lovely. Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.

*pets it*

Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, The Rapture of the Nerds

Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, The Rapture of the Nerds. Titan Books, 2013. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.

This is a case of right book, wrong time – or possibly wrong book, wrong time, although I normally enjoy everything Stross writes and tolerate Doctorow’s (entertaining, if thinly-disguised as didactic, moralistic tracts) technophiliac agitprop novels. Huw, the protagonist, is an entertaining if unpleasantly self-righteous wee Luddite, but I keep bouncing from the second chapter. I’m really not in the mood for futureshock and posthuman stuff lately. (Shocking, I know: stress sends me towards staider, simpler fare.)

I’ll try this again sometime, though: it’s definitely the wrong time, and so I’ve no way of judging whether or not it’s the right book.

Plague Nation, by Dana Fredsti, at Tor.com

My latest review:

There are bad books, and there are tedious books, and there are tediously bad books with a desperately sad lack of redeeming value or artistic merit. The best I can say about Plague Nation is that it aspires to be popcorn reading, a low-rent version of Resident Evil with more boyfriend angst and pop-culture quotes. It’s boring, folks. Go watch Zombieland again, or reread Mira Grant or Max Brooks instead.

Books in brief: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade; Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666

Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666. Titan Books, 2013. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.

This book’s prologue begins with a thinly-disguised fantasy fictionalisation of Seal Team 6’s assassination of Osama bin Laden, in which the unnamed bin Laden figure is portrayed as sincerely and knowingly in league with demonic forces.

Me, personally, I found this immensely disrespectful towards any understanding of Islam. Look, lads. Leaguing with demons? Charged by Protestants against Catholics and vice versa. But there are no demons in Islam. The only power a “devil” has is to lead men and djinni away from the straight path:

He said: “Give me respite till the day they are raised up.”
(Allah) said: “Be thou among those who have respite.”
He said: “Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way:
“Then will I assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt thou find, in most of them, gratitude (for thy mercies).”
(Allah) said: “Get out from this, disgraced and expelled.”

(Sura 7, Al-A’raf.)

And when continuing on from that in the next chapter, there was no attempt at explaining why there’d be demons involved, and it also proved rather dull – well, I have a lot of other things to read. A lot. So I stopped, and I do not intend to go back.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade. Orbit, 2012.

I may rag on “grimdark” fantasy a lot, but I like a good bit of gritty darkness as much as the next person – as long as it’s leavened with moments of emotional warmth and somewhat ethical choices. In The Outcast Blade, sequel to The Fallen Blade, JCG continues the story of Tycho, ex-slave turned knight, a trained assassin who craves blood under the moon; the sixteen-year-old noblewoman Giulietta, widow, key political pawn – or player – and the dark and troubled Venice of this alternate, fantastical, 16th-century Venice.

Caught between the Holy Roman Empire’s army and the Byzantine fleet, with scions of both empires offering for Giulietta’s hand in marriage, Venice, Tycho, and Giulietta are all in an uncomfortable position. One made more complicated by the dangerous rivalry between the regents for the mad/idiot Duke Marco: his mother, Alexa, aunt to the Mongol khan, and his uncle Alonzo. Tragedy, treachery, and international politics collide…

It’s a very good, very tightly written book. It never forgets the agency of its women, and its Venice is home to a wide range of people – Mongols and Mamlukes, rabbis and gravediggers, noblewomen and street children. I enjoyed it a lot, and I anticipate its soon-to-be-published sequel with some eagerness.