Category Archives: Books

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

It’s the 1860s. The East India Company is facing an epidemic of malaria in India. They recruit their former smuggler, Merrick Tremayne, to go to Peru to try to get some cuttings of cinchona trees, from which quinine, one of the only medicines effective against malaria, is derived. To protect their economy and monopoly on quinine, local Peruvian bosses pretty much shoot anyone who tries to take these cuttings. So, Merrick has a daunting task ahead of him, never mind the bum leg he got during a shelling on a previous mission to China.

It turns out the Merrick has a long, if to him unknown, history with New Bethlehem, or Bedlam as it is called, a town near the cinchona forests. Better said, his father and grandfather had a history with Bedlam. As Merrick makes his way to Bedlam, accompanied by Clem Markham, an archeologist, and his wife Minna, he learns a lot about not only Bedlam and its strange inhabitants but also his own connection to the place.

He meets Raphael, a priest, who has a mysterious connection with his grandfather. Raphael is prone to sometimes long bouts of catalepsy, in which he enters essentially a catatonic state. What this means for Merrick and his mission, Merrick must find out.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley is an interesting story. The plot is pretty straight forward — Merrick and Clem must get to Bedlam and get some cuttings of cinchona trees and get them back to India — however, the real wonder comes from the world that Pulley creates. The people of Bedlam have ancient connections to the Inca that once lived there. These connections still inform their lives, particularly Raphael’s. An enigmatic character, we learn the truth about his connections to the Inca as the plot moves along. Pulley has created an interesting world in which the mysterious coexists with the modern, a place where the unknown can still fascinate science-minded characters such as Merrick. Sometimes, Clem and Merrick’s scientific bent blinds them to the reality that is right in front of them. Merrick, in narrating his adventure, describes his skepticism: “More things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy — except there aren’t.”

Some of my other favorite quotes from the book include:

  • Getting annoyed about it was like blaming a butterfly for not being able to spin a web.
  • It would be like burning rupees if you never intended to go to India again and didn’t know anyone else who would.
  • Clem thought that marriage was something that happened naturally to a person, like starting to like olives.
  • In his observations of the people of Bedlam, Merrick says: There must have been minds just like Sing’s [his employer], people who could have been flint-hearted trader millionaires, but would never make a difference to anything because they were too occupied weaving the idiotic read boats.
  • It’s hard to trust a man in his thirties who still loses his temper.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Ack! Been too long since I read this and I don’t remember the details. This is basically a time travel story, but with memories being the vehicle of time travel. What if you could relive the moment of memories and change their course? That is the premise of Blake Crouch’s Recursion. The title refers to the way that time lines can keep changing as memories change.

The protagonist, Barry Sutton, has a NYPD detective who has hit a rough patch. His daughter was killed in a hit-and-run and his marriage falls apart in the aftermath. Barry has certainly seen better days. But, what if he could go back and save his daughter? How would things have changed?

The power to go back and change events is the underlying sub context. What happens to the people that develop this power? How do they use it to further their own ends?

There are some interesting plot devices that Crouch uses to both add suspense as well as wrinkles to the plot. The way time travel is used here is, to me, pretty novel. Not that I’ve read a lot of time travel stories, but as opposed to say the Back to the Future view where you directly change your future by meddling in your past, or the Marvel view in which going back splits the time line into two, Crouch takes an alternative view in which, in some ways, events overlap.

As with Dark Matter, Crouch has a way of taking interesting scientific concepts and develop a compelling plot around the idea. The idea is the core, but the plot and characters flesh it out to make it a compelling story.

At its heart, Recursion is a story about loss. Crouch explores themes of loss, what if, and second chances. At his low, Barry is wallowing in his loss, his lost chances, his what ifs. “He has wondered lately if that’s all living really is — one long goodbye to those we love.”

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty, is the first installment in the Daevabad Trilogy. It follows Nahri, a young woman with a secret even she doesn’t know, and Dara, a Daeva (or djinn, though this is viewed as an insult to the Daeva). Dara has his own dark past from when he lived with his own kind, before he was banished. Nahri meets Dara after meddling in some magic that was beyond her understanding and, as a consequence, gets tangled up in centuries-old intrigue between the Daeva and other supernatural beings.

The city of brass in the title is Daevabad, where Dara originally comes from and where he and his kind once ruled. It is now ruled over by a different caste of djinn, ones that Dara views as inferior. Dara is a throwback to a previous time of warriors and blood-thirsty war. Whether he finds a place for himself in the modern Daevabad is always a question.

Nahri, on the other hand, because of her secret, is of great interest to the current rulers of Daevabad. They alternately welcome her and treat her as a prisoner, unsure if she is a threat or the key to bringing peace. The political intrigue between all of these supernatural beings is really well developed, with the reader never quite sure who has the upper hand or who is in control of events. They are in many ways, despite their immense power, more petty and more frivolous than humans. They are more capricious, and have a very rigid view of place. It is an interesting, if somewhat distorted, reflection of our own world and the way we all treat one another.

The third main character is Ali, the son of the current ruler of Daevabad. He isn’t sure he wants to be part of the royal family. A strict religious fellow, he looks askance at the wayward ways of his older brother and heir to the throne. He is torn by his duty and his beliefs. And, ultimately, he gets tangled with Nahri and Dara.

My favorite line in this novel comes when Nahri’s mentor is discussing the political turmoil rising out of Nahri’s presence in Daevabad. The other woman, Ghassan, asks her:

“In what world do men and women pay the same price for passion?”

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another super hero book, another world where people are able to obtain super powers. They aren’t born with them, and the manner in which they get their powers, and what those powers are, is pretty unique. The book centers around Eli and Victor, two college roommates who figure out how people get powers and find a way to get themselves powers. But, their collaboration soon falls apart and they become bitter enemies.

One thing I really liked about Vicious is that there are no heroes. There are no good guys. There aren’t any really evil people either, just regular people suddenly with super powers and their own selfish and egotistical motivations for using them. Eli and Victor are opposite sides of the same coin, both believing in the righteousness of their cause. There is no super villain wishing to control the world. These characters can be petty, they certainly are vindictive, and they can be vicious.

The world Schwab has created leads to an interesting set of super powers, some of which are pretty different compared to other super hero worlds. These characters don’t fit the typical super hero tropes. Their powers are different and their motivations are different.

This is the first book in the Villains series. I enjoyed it enough to come back for book 2.

My favorite line from the book occurs during an encounter between Victor and Eli. Victor has Eli on the ropes, calling him out for his, in Victor’s mind, misguided mission. Eli argues that Victor simply doesn’t understand, to which Victor replies

“When no one understands, that’s usually a good sign that you’re wrong.”

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Imagine that super heroes are real. And that, whatever gave them powers also seems to have created zombies, or the equivalent. Humanity has been wiped out, but there are bastions where super heroes protect them from the advancing zombie hoard. That is the world of Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

I really liked how Clines makes super heroes maybe just a bit more realistic, a bit more relatable. He even gives them a credible origin. While many of the heroes are based on standard archetypes, they have unique personalities that give them a bit more depth:

  • St George is the Superman character.
  • Stealth is the leader, a Batman-like character who happens to be an ex-lingerie model.
  • Gorgon can absorb the powers and strength of anyone who looks him in the eye.
  • Cerberus is the Iron Man character, a former military scientist, she feels at home in her armor.
  • Zzzap is essentially energy personified.

There are many others, but the plot revolves around these central characters. In the first book (Ex-Heroes is the first of at least six books exploring this zombie world), the heroes are pitted against a ruthless gang of ex-humans and must defend their home, a converted movie studio, from their constant advances. The ex-humans include some former heroes and villains that have become zombies.

As opposed to the more sanitized Marvel and DC universes, the heroes here are more like real people. They swear, they have sex, they kill when they think they must, and they die. Permanently (at least, in the first book). Given the grand scope of characters and the fact that Clines is willing to kill some off, you never know who might survive. This provides the tension needed to keep the plot rolling and to keep you engaged. Book 2 is certainly on my read list.

My favorite line from the book references one of my favorite characters, Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, Stealth is dwelling on the ex-humans and their sudden appearance in the world. Thinking to herself, she says:

In one of the earlier Sherlock Homes mysteries, Arthur Conan Doyle (not yet a Sir) made an observation on logical deduction. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
There is, however, a specific flaw in that maxim. It assumes people can recognize the difference between what is impossible and what they believe is impossible.