Book Review: The Andromeda Strain

This review will contain spoilers! If you want to avoid that and you only want the gerfunkle report, there are no gerfunkles in this book. Granted, there really aren’t any female characters whatsoever so that’s pretty easy on the author, but I digress! Level one gerfunkle, go ham my dears.

I dug this. Of course, I’m the ideal reader. I work in microbiology and I’m a science major. So naturally, I have an appreciation for SCIENCE. I was familiar with most of the terminologies thrown at me, and I found it easy to infer those I wasn’t. For those who don’t have my background, though, Crichton does a good job elaborating on what he means through metaphor. The metaphors can get lengthy, but if you’re interested in learning a bit about molecular structures and how contagions function, you’ll stay entertained.

I will say that to some degree this felt like a tense, drawn-out prologue. That’s not a bad thing. I have no issue with kicking off a series that way – and I can see there is a sequel to this book, though it wasn’t written by Crichton himself. What matters is that despite that vibe, plenty of things happen in this book. All of it, assuming I’ve pinned where this story is going, is very relevant information. It feels like a strong foundation to build on.

We’ll start with characterization. I can’t say it was very strong, so I’d give that 2/5 stars. Crichton does manage to give us a lot with a little: he defines cut and clear depictions of the characters at the beginning of the book, then pretty much leaves them at that. While I wouldn’t enjoy that in usual circumstances, The Andromeda Strain quite obviously wasn’t written to focus on characterization. It was written as a way to explore intriguing scientific theories. That means the characters are left weak – or at least as outlines that aren’t fully fleshed – but I wouldn’t say that’s unintended on the author’s part. He had somewhere he wanted to be, so he focused on getting there.

The plot was great. The book was lightning-fast paced, a swift read even as it threw heaps of scientific jargon up in your face. I have to laud the man’s ability to make a bunch of scientists working in a lab seem white-knuckle intense. I doubt I could do that shit, personally. Flashes of what’s happening outside of the Wildfire project lend fuel to the intensity too, all the more because for most of the book our intrepid nerd-men don’t even realize what’s going on due to a technical issue. The creeping horror of the Andromeda Strain mutating into something else is delightfully implemented. The reader gets a little bit of a break just for a moment when Stone and Hall realize that the virus has evolved beyond human virulence – but only for a moment. When Stone mentions that the organisms (which eat plastic and polymers now, oh boy,) are trapped in the atmosphere, I felt a cold dread.

The epilogue is about a spacecraft being compromised by the virus and crashing to earth, so that dread successfully manifested.

The plot gets a 5/5 from me.

Finally, we get to worldbuilding. Crichton’s strength here isn’t so much in pure creativity: everything happens on earth, based on very real science. His strength is the depth of his research, and the way he masterfully applies it to the terror of the Andromeda Strain. I think the most success comes at the end, where we as the reader are left with many delightful questions supplied by his steady drip-feed of information. It’s mentioned by Leavitt that the organism may be a means of transporting information through the vastness of space: as in, not natural, but created by another sentient species. When we’re left with a spaceship-eating virus drifting in the clouds – with the implication that it’s trapping us on the planet – that opens up a slew of uncomfortable possibilities. Was this an intended consequence? If so, was the intention to trap us on the planet? And in that event, were we the only species hit by this manufactured plague? Hell, is this Crichton’s take on the fermi paradox?

If so, it’s a fun one. 5/5 stars for worldbuilding.

All of this is really why I mentioned it felt like a prologue to me. I’m certainly eager to see where the story goes from here.

Finally, our gerfunkle report is pretty cut and dry. There’s no time for any of that bullshit here, we’ve only got SCIENCE to worry about. Probably the weakest thing about the book is the complete lack of character variety. Admittedly I had trouble telling Stone, Hall, Leavitt, and Burton apart (and even now I’m thinking there was a fifth guy, but I’ll be damned if I remember his name.) I just sort of pictured them all as the same generic cutout. The book might have been helped by a touch more variety in the ‘cast,’ but still, you can merrily read it without any worries for gerfunkles.

Enjoy, ladies and gents.


Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

Here there be spoilers. If you’d like to enjoy the novel without spoilers, this book contains a rating of one gerfunkle. Enjoy, lovelies!

I really liked this.

I think part of it was the fact that the novel was so entirely self-contained. Yes, there’s a little bit of a hook at the very ending, but for the most part it covers its full arc without feeling incomplete. I’ve been reading a lot of full-length series lately, so sitting down for something that wouldn’t carry on for five other novels was nice.

I mean. I could still kill someone with the paperback, though. This book is dense.

If I could sum it up for you, I’d say this book is the kind of thing my grumpy old coworker was ‘asking for’ when he whined about the ghostbusters remake. Or was it the fact that Rey was the jedi in Star Wars? Anyway, whichever ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN MY SOUP’ whinging he was doing that day, he claimed all he wanted was for people to write their own stories with female characters.

He’d absolutely hate this book. It makes me love it more. But it’s also very empowering of women, without the sometimes eyeroll worthy thisisamarketingploy emphasis Hollywood is dipping into these days. I am unequivocally here for Eadaz. Tané is a delight, and I found her introduction for the story completely gripping. The romance between Eadaz and Sabran was just…magnificent.

The male characters are no slouches either. Loth is about the most lovable creation I’ve ever encountered. Niclays is bitter, resentful, hurting and vengeful. It all makes him an incredibly believable character, and I have to say, no matter what terrible thing he did, I still felt empathy for him. That’s the gift of a talented writer.

So characterization is certainly a five out of five here.

The worldbuilding was great. Samantha Shannon pulls from many different cultures in order to flesh out the different continents she’s working with. Most of them were some iteration of a theocracy, and for me that really added a lot to the whole mix. Playing with religion is one of the things I really enjoy in a fantasy setting, just because when you’re a history nerd, you know how prevalent and relevant it has been in shaping cultures (for good and bad.) To boot, Priory clearly has a rich history. You get flashes of it as you’re reading. The book definitely leaves holes here and there for you to be curious about, but it tells you just enough to give the world a solid spine. (I found the deification of ‘The Saint’ to be particularly delicious. And when the truth comes out about him…HOOBOY.)

A five out of five goes here, too.

The plot almost got a five out of five stars. I was REALLY feeling it right up to the ending, and the ending wasn’t bad, but I do feel that it was a touch rushed. Fighting The Nameless One was everything I wanted it to be, but it came upon us so abruptly and felt like it concluded too quickly. Other than that, though, the plot was brilliant. It was everything I wanted in a high fantasy: the political intrigues of Virtudom, in particular.

It’s a four out of five stars for this.

Finally, Priory has a rating of one gerfunkle. And I’m going to add this: the story is still plenty dark. What I love about the fact that Shannon excluded gerfunkle was that she was able to explore so many other things that women have dealt with historically. The pressure to have children, for instance, even if that wasn’t what she wanted, was something that made me gravitate towards and feel for Sabran. Honestly, speaking as a woman who loves to read, I think the prevalence of gerfunkle as That One Thing Women Always Face helps rob us of a rich and poignant past, one filled with so many things we have stood against and overcome. It’s a part, but it’s not the whole, and I really like seeing pieces of the entire pie.

Enjoy this one, readers. I know I did.

Book Review: Red Rising

Here there be spoilers. (For those that want to enjoy the novel without spoilers, this book as a gerfunkle rating of two. Sadly I would definitely categorize this as a salt-and-pepper case – the author uses gerfunkle liberally, even if he doesn’t necessarily go into detail.)

I wasn’t really feeling this one, and I’m not 100% sure why.

The worldbuilding was okay. I wasn’t a fan of the color-system-society. I found it to be rather simplistic. ‘The pinks are for pleasure, the reds are for labor, the golds are the gods.’ I do enjoy ancient Rome, and while for the first book I do get the impression the author smashed all its facets flat, I appreciate trying to use something historical when writing one’s fiction. I just maybe would have done more research myself, if I was going to use the framework in such a direct way.

Overall, though, I can’t say there’s much about this book that stands out to me. The color system made me think of Divergent (which I’ve never read, but I saw one of the movies at some point.) The concept of the Gold’s ‘training ground’ was essentially the Hunger Games. Now, I’m the first person to point out that literature is derivative – it’s not a bad thing to explore similar themes and take them in a different direction. Problem was, Red Rising didn’t really run with any of those themes. Not in a way that felt fresh or new.

I give the worldbuilding a 3 out of 5 stars. Not great, not terrible.

The characters are really what lost me.

Darrow strikes me as a cardboard cutout everyman. He loses his wife (and we’ll get to her later) and goes on a revenge crusade. That in and of itself wouldn’t kill him for me – we use familiar ideas precisely because they’re familiar. It’s like a diving board. You all start from the same place, but there are a million different ways you can enter the water.

Darrow’s a straight-backed, rigid-limbed belly-flop. He’s painfully flat. He mourns his dead wife (whose death didn’t give me any kind of emotional catharsis.) He rages against the injustice of a system so evil it feels like a caricature. It just really felt like Pierce Brown took the outline for this kind of character and didn’t add anything to it. He did nothing to sincerely make it is own, and because of that lack, I just didn’t care about Darrow. I cared less and less about him as the story progressed. His mourning of Eo felt plastic. His rage felt repetitive.

The other characters in the book suffer similarly. I will say I did like Sevro, but even he was only an inch above baseline. His society values perfection, and he doesn’t look perfect, so he’s been ostracized. That’s made him a fighter. That said, I never understood why Sevro felt such gung-ho loyalty to Darrow. Even right up to hiding the fact that he was a Red, or so we’re led to believe. I need a reason why a character would be willing to die for another, and for me, that never came through.

Mustang can be summed up by the fact that she’s named after a horse. As a female character she wasn’t throw-the-book-at-a-wall bad, but she really didn’t jive with me either. I also found the bit about her singing Eo’s song a touch too convenient. Also, if they’re constantly being watched by cameras, shouldn’t she be worried about singing a rebel’s song? A song apparently so controversial it calls for immediate execution?

Just a thought.

Finally, we have Eo. We all knew Eo was going to die. The ‘beautiful wife that lights up a room’ thing is basically like casting Sean Bean in a movie. The question isn’t if, it’s when and how.

I didn’t give a damn about Eo dying. The way she died was certainly very graphic and I think anyone would feel a reflexive empathy for a sixteen year old being strangled by her husband grabbing her legs (to be fair to Brown, I did like that imagery.) But once the shock has cleared, you’re left only with the memory of her character. She was a woman who chose to die as a symbol in front of her husband and family. She was a woman whose one conversation was to belittle Darrow, to tell him that the hardships he suffered because of his father’s choices were meaningless. To tell him he was a coward, because he was afraid of people who could take everything from him.

And honestly? That kind of made her an asshole.

So by the fifteenth time Darrow pines for Eo, I was over it. I wasn’t sympathetic. I was irritated. She was a badly done fridge. To really pull my heartstrings, you need to put in more effort.

Characterization is gonna be a 1 out of 5 stars for me guys. Hate to say it.

Finally, we have the plot. I’ll give it that it’s fast-paced, which is always nice. There’s something happening at every turn, so Brown does show a good feel for pacing. It really picks up when you get to the school and start realizing how oppressed the Golds are along with everyone else (although it does bring up the question: if you’re constantly ostracizing your military, how has your society not crumbled? Google what caused Rome to fail.) We did have some interesting interactions between characters – the whole arc with Darrow and Cassius, for example. And to the author’s credit, I did feel a little something when Pax died. His death was easy to see coming too, but at least by that time he’d built up the character enough to make it more impactful.

I have to say though I found the whole ending hilariously bad. The fact that Darrow was gary stu’ing his happy little butt through most of the book I tolerated, but when he managed to just break into Olympus and take the place over with his ragtag group of teenagers, I laughed aloud. That was the moment he clearly became a power fantasy, which is okay, but I don’t really have an interest in that particular kind of story.

I’ll give the plot a 3/5 stars. The pacing is really what bumped it up there.

Finally, we get to our gerfunkle rating.

I considered making this three gerfunkles. While there is never a completely explicit gerfunkle scene in and of itself, Brown has no issue whatsoever throwing it everywhere. He uses it any time he wants things to ‘get dark.’ He uses it with great liberty, to the point that I couldn’t really tell you which pages to avoid it getting brought up. And here’s the thing:

If it weren’t for his constant use/mention of gerfunkle, this would have been marketed as a Y/A novel.

I’m not saying that to piss on Y/A novels. I have many Y/A authors that I adore. (Francis Hardinge, call me.) I just mean that many of his themes, his overall worldbuilding, and even his cast of characters – 16-18 range – would typically find themselves at home in that market. I sincerely wonder if he didn’t just use gerfunkle in order to avoid that, instead of maybe tossing in some more facets here and there or aging up his characters somehow.

And if that’s the case, that’s pretty cheap.

Two gerfunkles on this one. If you’re really sensitive to the topic, I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book. I don’t think it’s worth the payout.

Overall, this book could have used another couple of drafts. It wasn’t bad, it just needed a little more something.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse)

Here there be spoilers. Reader beware. (If you want to skip the review to enjoy the book without spoilers, Leviathan Wakes has a rating of one gerfunkle.)

One piece of helpful advice on writing I’ve received pertains to forming an ‘anchor character.’ Someone you can sincerely relate to as a reader. Somebody you can latch onto, feel a world through, and relate to. As long as you anchor a reader firmly enough, they’ll still have somewhere to land, a sticking point to make things more believable – no matter how weird shit gets.

Which is all a very long-winded way of describing how I felt about Miller.

We know Miller. We’ve met Miller before. He’s our down and out detective, our grizzled, jaded man who’s seen it all and gotten tired of it. His job consumed him so much he got a divorce. The untreated stresses of what he’s seen behind the barrel of a gun have driven him to alcoholism. He knows the world is shit, but that little kernel of wanting to make it better is still somewhere inside of him, kicking around his ribs like a heartbeat trying not to die. Is he a cliché? Yeah, he is. He’s a trope. But damn does he work, and the popularity of this formula is like a really good recipe.

We can enjoy the weirdness of the protomolecule through Miller’s eyes. We never meet Julie Mao except in the very first chapter, and yet we learn so many important things about her through Miller that I wouldn’t even count her as a fridge character. James S. A. Corey cleverly conveys the kind of person she was through our stalwart detective: a young woman born into so much privilege, yet recognizing the horrible disparity in the solar system and breaking away from that birthright to help those less fortunate than she. In turn, Miller pursues Julie because to him, she’s an anomaly. By rights, she should be spoiled. Entitled. In spite of that, she threw in all her weight somewhere she thought would do some good. And if she can do that, maybe he can keep the kernel beating a little longer.

I found the ending between Miller and Julie to be heart-wrenching in the best of ways. We see how much of a broken man he is, but we follow him through what feels like his personal story of redemption. And we get to finally see Julie’s own strength, powerful enough to steer the alien monstrosity of Eros away from Earth and towards dead Venus.

Characterization in this book was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. It’s a 5/5 stars for me.

There’s a lot of great worldbuilding ideas in this story. All in all, the way that humanity has begun to ‘other’ one another feels all too real. Frighteningly so. The elongation of the belter’s bones, the establishment of entire new languages – all of these details just added so much to defining the world itself. I admit that first conversation Miller had with a witness completely threw me off – I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she was saying, (long arm what now?) but that was clearly intentional. It’s classic low-fi building blocks, and it’s done flawlessly. In particular, I loved the hints of cultural mixing: the music, the people, even everyone’s last names. In my view, science fiction should be inherently diverse. It makes no sense to me otherwise.

Worldbuilding is another solid 5/5.

As for the plot: like Miller, there’s a lot about it that feels familiar, especially if you love science fiction. An evil corporation makes decisions that effect countless people, mostly for personal gain. This story does raise some really interesting questions, though, about coming into contact with an advanced alien race. Even just seeing its technology has to make us question everything, and within the context of the story, the technology found is billions of years old. When confronting the scientist that ran the horrible experiment on Eros, he points out that compared to humanity, these beings are essentially gods. If they chose to end us, they could do it without a thought.

If you’re a sci-fi geek like I am, you probably got just as giddy as I did during this scene. Because it’s true. On the grand scale, we better f***ing hope we’re forerunners. Because if we’re late to the game of sentience and space travel, people, we’re completely and utterly screwed.

Plot, you guessed it, is another 5/5.

Finally, here’s a great one. Guess what?

This book has a rating of one gerfunkle. (If you don’t know what a gerfunkle is, you can find that information here:

This shocked me. It’s so rare that I read a novel in this genre which doesn’t contain themes like this, but Leviathan Wakes has none.

You can read and enjoy this five-star book completely at your leisure.

I sincerely hope that you do.