More Than Wordsmiths: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover detail

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published: August 21st, 2018
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Heist, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 19 hrs and 34 mins

Golems from Jewish folklore have always fascinated me, with their heads full of instructions written on a life-giving scroll. A golem is both the creation myth in miniature and a way to codify magic, a sort of early computer programming where the processors are clay giants. It’s strangely comforting to imagine that human beings could control the world in such a fashion, while also terrifying to imagine the many ways it could go wrong.

In Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett takes some of those basic elements and introduces a world where craftsmen use the art of scriving to write a reality-controlling language on inanimate objects and give them a form of consciousness; everything in creation is nothing more than a golem waiting for its instructions. Then, he imagines all of the ways that this power could and would go sickeningly, catastrophically, heartbreakingly wrong.

Sancia is a thief, and a damn good one, all thanks to her ability to touch any object and understand how it works. When she touches an object, understands everything about it, which comes in handy when she needs to pick a lock or avoid a trap, but makes it hard to focus when she has to tune out her own clothes.

When the book opens, Sancia is about to start a seemingly mundane job for a mysterious client: steal a small wooden box from the waterfront and deliver it unopened, no questions asked. As you might imagine, the heist goes catastrophically wrong, and Sancia decides she needs to know what she went to all that trouble to get.

Inside the box, she discovers a bizarre scrived key that can open any lock and that also happens to speak in a snarky voice that she can hear in her head. Sancia quickly realizes that she is in deep shit with any number of people who want to kill her, and she sets about trying to find a way to survive.

This wouldn’t be a book about a thief if there wasn’t eventually a bigger, more dangerous heist in the cards. As Sancia comes to understand the true stakes of her situation, she slowly but surely builds out a crew of friends and allies while Jackson Bennett unpacks her history and reveals the horrors of her former life.

Meticulous worldbuilding always feels like the “fun” of an epic fantasy novels, the part of the book that the author obsessed over, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Jackson Bennett’s worldbuilding is fun, but scriving is also the rotten core at the heart of Foundryside.

Sancia’s world and its wonders exist only because of atrocities that seem like ancient history but that happened not so long ago. The worst part is the revelation that the modern-day scrivers only understand a tiny fraction of the language of their ancestors, and all the power will go to the first scriver who puts enough pieces of the language together to remake the world in their image.

Foundryside is the first of Jackson Bennett’s novels that I’ve read. I had heard endless praise for his Divine Cities trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll read it before too much longer, but for whatever reason, I was more drawn to Foundryside’s fascinating premise and high-stakes magical heists. Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook from Audible.

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The Perfect Do-Over: Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Reincarnation Blues coverReincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Published: August 22nd, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 13 hrs and 3 mins

In Reincarnation Blues, Milo is the ultimate slacker. He’s lived thousands of lives, but he still hasn’t reached perfection. Instead, he just wants to spend his time in the afterlife with his girlfriend, Susie, who also happens to be one of the incarnations of death. They’ve been together for more than eight thousand years, give or take, and Milo’s primary goal in the afterlife is avoiding transcending to the oversoul so that he can spend eternity watching TV on a couch with Susie.

Things get complicated, as they often do, when Mama and Nan, the caretakers of the afterlife, explain to him that he is about to run out of lives. Every soul gets no more than ten thousand reincarnations, and he’s down to his last five. If he can’t reach perfection and join the oversoul, Mama and Nan will push him off a floating sidewalk into nothingness and oblivion.

Milo thought that all he needed to do was be a wise man, which is why he’d spent his most recent life dispensing wisdom from fishing boat, but it turns out that perfection isn’t that simple. Part of the problem is that every life he lives feels more like killing time until he dies and gets to go back to Susie. Even still, Mama and Nan’s warning scares him into action, and he decides that he’ll do anything he can to reach perfection and avoid dissolving into nothingness.

The conceit of this book means that we follow Milo over the course of a dozen or so lives, each stranger than the last. It’s a bit like reading a collection of short stories with a through-line and common main character. The tone of the book is drily funny throughout, which is helpful because several of Milo’s lives are bleak or downright horrifying.

I will say that there is a point about halfway through the book where it almost lost me. Milo reincarnates somewhere far in the future as a young man with a promising future, but he is falsely accused of rape and sent to a nightmarish prison where the other prisoners rape and torture him.

If the trope of a false rape accusation wasn’t bad enough, the sheer unpleasantness of Milo’s life in prison started to drag the book down for me. However, I hung in to see how things played out, and I’m glad I did, because the end of the chapter redeemed itself. That said, several of Milo’s lives do happen in dystopias, so don’t go into this book expecting a happy time.

Reincarnation Blues is hilarious, moving, shocking and occasionally disturbing. The result is a wonderful coming-of-age story if those can happen to someone after they’ve lived close to ten thousand lives. Maybe a coming-to-wisdom story? Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook from the library.

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A Detailed Mirage: Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Published: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Adventure, War, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 12 hrs and 9 mins

I think what drew me to Fata Morgana was the promise of an old-fashioned adventure with a bit of romance: a WW2 bomber plane flies through a portal to another world and the crew has to learn how to deal with extreme culture shock while their captain falls in love with a mysterious woman. However, I wasn’t expecting that it would also include an obsessive attention to detail about the intricacies of flying and crewing a bomber.

Fata Morgana does deliver on that initial promise of adventure, but I have to admit that it required a bit of patience on my part to get invested in the story. I don’t generally enjoy it when an author has clearly gone out of their way to get every little detail right and wants to make for damn sure that you know about it. If you want to read an exhaustive catalog of the US Army Air Force bomber crew experience during WW2, you’ll probably love this book, but if you aren’t into that level of minutiae, you might have to give it some room to grow on you.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all fairly one-dimensional archetypes and they never rise above their first impressions. They wisecrack, they make earnest speeches, they sacrifice for the good of the crew, they’re generally stand-up guys. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, because the story well-executed and there isn’t a false note throughout, but I can barely remember any of their names.

There is one interesting sequence late in the book where reality comes unstuck and things get a little surreal, but it goes on for long enough that it started feeling repetitive. The best parts of the book are when the crew has to do their job and fight back against their enemies, be they Nazis or otherwise. These sequences are thrilling and evocative, and are part of what brought the book home for me. There are a few action sequences full of heart-pounding moments and thrills, especially late in the book.

I did like Fata Morgana, but it feels like this review landed a bit more on the negative side than I intended. I think this a book for a certain type of reader laser-focused on verisimilitude, even in their science fiction. I don’t generally fall into that category, but I can still appreciate a story well-told.

REALLY LIKED IT

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10 PRINT “Heart of Code: The Impossible Fortress”

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Published: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fiction, Coming-of-age
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 23 mins

The Impossible Fortress hits the exact right notes of eighties nostalgia without turning into a catalog of bygone pop culture. It definitely opened a flood of memories for me. I wasn’t a teenager in 1987, but I did spend my childhood teaching myself BASIC on my Apple IIGS and keying in machine language programs printed in the backs of my dad’s computer magazines.

Billy, Alf and Clark just want to see Vanna White in the May 1987 issue of Playboy, and they’ll try just about any harebrained scheme to get it. When they go into a local typewriter repair store and try to convince the owner that they look like serious businessmen who are definitely old enough to buy it, Billy meets Mary, an overweight social outcast who not only shares his love of computer programming but also his interest in making games, not to mention the fact that she has talent to spare.

Mary tells Billy about a contest judged by their personal game design hero, and it isn’t long before they’re heads-down, working feverishly to finish the titular game – an unfinished, unpolished concept created by Billy in his free time – all while Alf and Clark think he’s working a scam to get the Playboy.

The characters are so sharply drawn that they leap off the page. Rekaluk makes them both relatable and unique with only a few key details as well as a strong sense of the time and place. I fell in love with these characters, rooting for them to figure things out and make something out of themselves.

That’s why I was especially invested when the book took a turn for the dramatic and the stakes became much higher. Suddenly The Impossible Fortress wasn’t just a teenage sex comedy filled to the brim with programming nostalgia; it was also a story about how one wrong choice can ruin your life and how easy it is to watch your dreams slip through your hands. When things started going south for Billy, my stomach dropped, and I didn’t want to stop reading.

In fact, I listened to most of this book in one long sitting while I cleaned and packed for my holiday travel. I rarely get the chance to listen for such a long, uninterrupted period, so it’s especially nice to find a book compelling enough to warrant the attention. I highly recommend The Impossible Fortress, and can’t wait to read Jason Rekaluk’s follow-up, whatever it might be.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook version instead.

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The Girl Who Wasn’t: LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

Published: May 29th 2018
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 402 pages

LIFEL1K3 is the rare book that I mostly enjoyed until the end soured me on the whole thing. It’s a mash-up of a lot of genres and tropes, which gives it a certain amount of madcap charm, but it squanders that good will with some draggy pacing, an overload of teenage angst, and a final twist that feels like a gotcha moment designed only for shock value. It’s also overstuffed with plot and world-building, so it’s almost impossible to summarize succinctly.

When you live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you have to make ends meet in whatever way possible. Eve builds and pilots homegrown battle-bots from spare parts and pits them against challengers in gladiator battles with the help of her trusty little robot, Cricket, and her best friend, Lemon Fresh. She has a cybernetic eye and a “memdrive” installed in her brain to help her remember her past life, cut short when she was shot and left for dead.

When the book opens, she’s about to fight a malfunctioning corporate bot to get medicine for her ailing grandfather, Silas. The battle goes south, but she’s saved at the last minute when she unleashes some kind of telekinetic power that fries the malfunctioning bot.

Only problem is, gladiator battles are broadcast throughout the local area, and her performance brings her to the attention of some unsavory types, including a religious sect who kill “deviates” on sight and a corporate bounty hunter who wants to capture her for nefarious purposes.

Lucky for her, she’s saved by a beautiful “lifelike” robot named Ezekiel, designed to resemble a handsome young man with super-strength, who she salvaged when his ship crashed nearby. When they try to make their getaway, another lifelike named Faith captures her grandfather, so Eve and her friends have to save him while also running from the bounty hunter hot on their tails. Complicating things is the fact that Ezekiel and Faith both seem to recognize her and call her by another name, Ana.

Now, it’s kind of hard to explain my criticisms of the book without spoilers, so I’m going to warn you now that the rest of this review will be full of them. When Faith damages Eve’s memdrive in a fight, Eve starts having flashes of another life different from the hardscrabble one she thinks she knows. It turns out that Eve isn’t who she thinks she is, which becomes a running theme.

Eve begins remembering her life as Ana, who lived in a corporate tower with her father, the inventor of the lifelikes. She knows the lifelikes and has a shared, tragic history with them! Also, her grandfather isn’t her grandfather. Instead, he’s an engineer who gave her fake memories so that she could have a fresh start.

Ezekiel was the boy of her dreams, Faith was her best friend, and the lifelikes (except possibly Ezekiel) betrayed her family and killed them in a revolution. The angst and the drama build as Eve tries to reconcile her identities and histories, deal with her buried feelings for Ezekiel, and fumes about people lying to her.

You might think that everything I’ve summarized up above is more than enough for one book, and you’d be right. However, Kristoff still has a few twists left up his sleeve. The first few twists just stir up more drama and angst, but the final twist is what soured me on the book.

It turns out that Eve isn’t even the real Ana – she’s secretly a lifelike designed to think she was Ana. After she was shot, Silas installed the memdrive to give her a fresh start as someone new. This revelation puts her over the edge, and she pushes her friends away and slides into apparent villainy in the final sentence of the book.

By that point, I’d already lost a little bit of patience with the number of plot twists and the angsty in-fighting characters, but I wouldn’t have minded the final twist so much if Eve’s decision was less black-and-white. If she’d gone out into the world to find herself with mysterious motivations, I’d at least want to find out more about who she decides to become. Instead, she seeks out another lifelike with clearly villainous motivations and tells him that they have a lot of work to do.

It felt like Kristoff was trying to force Eve’s decision to BE EVIL, and it made me not care about her journey. LIFEL1K3 was a bit of an exhausting read thanks to its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink storytelling, but that final twist just felt like it sold out the main character for a cheap shock.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Devil Music: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Published: September 18th 2018
Publisher: Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Rock and Roll
Format: E-Book
Length: 336 pages

We Sold Our Souls is sort of like a heavy metal concept album in novel form, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of slapdash narrative you would normally find on a long-player. Instead, it’s a propulsive read that rides on the momentum of a lost album full of revolutionary rock songs.

The author of that lost album, Kris Pulaski, is a washed-up former rock guitarist riding the desk at a Best Western. She’s stuck in that customer-service wasteland because Terry Hunt, the lead singer of her old band, Dürt Würk, sold her out, stole her music, and sued her into oblivion. It doesn’t help that the rest of the band hates her because of something terrible she did on “contract night” – the night the band fell apart in spectacular fashion.

When Kris sees a billboard for Koffin, Terry’s sell-out cash-grab nu metal band formed in the ashes of Dürt Würk, she’s at absolute rock bottom. She’s broke, friendless and soon-to-be homeless after her brother kicks her out of her dead mother’s house.

The billboard is the catalyst that sets off a bottomless store of anger she’d kept tamped deep down inside. She decides that it’s time to confront the former members of Dürt Würk and ask them why the events of contract night don’t line up in her memory.

This is a horror novel called We Sold Our Souls, though, so I’m sure it isn’t surprising to learn that something bizarre is going on behind the scenes and Kris gets caught up in its wake as soon as she gets back in touch with her old band.

I was so caught up in this book that I read the last 2/3rds in one marathon sitting, which I think is a pretty resounding endorsement. There are also two harrowing set-pieces that kept me on the edge of my seat and wincing.

I’ve read a few of Grady Hendrix’s novels now, and although this one isn’t as good as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it delivers some solid scares while also painting a compelling picture of how music can save your life.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Modernized Space Girl: Barbarella, Volume 1

Barbarella, Volume 1Barbarella, Volume 1: Red Hot Gospel

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yar, Jorge Fornés
Published: October 10th, 2018
Publisher: Dynamite
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: E-Book
Length: 126 pages

First, some caveats about this review of the new Barbarella comic written by Mike Carey: I’ve never seen the Jane Fonda movie, so I watched the trailer to get a feel for it because it felt like a necessary entry point.

I also read the first volume of the classic comics by Jean-Claude Forest so that I’d have a baseline to compare against the rebooted series. From a writing standpoint, I’d say that the two versions of Barbarella are on close to equal footing, but the art in the modern version just does not do the character justice.

Forest draws the classic 60s version in black and white with an almost sketch-like quality to the art. The suggestive lines are still evocative even if the style is a little dated. It might be interesting to read a remastered version with full-color art as long as it didn’t lose the style of the original. I think I would have preferred that over the rebooted version, or at least a new comic that more closely follows the classic style.

The first volume of the Mike Carey version consists of a three-issue arc drawn by the series artist, Kenan Yar, and a stand-alone drawn by Jorge Fornés. Both stories start with Barbarella’s ship breaking down, which I’m guessing is a running joke from the movie.

In the longer story, Barbarella crash-lands in the middle of a rebellion on a repressive religious planet where the church removes everyone’s genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex (because pleasure is a temptation.) Naturally, Barbarella considers this a horrifying injustice and does everything she can to fight the church, stopping only at murder. The story is a bit forgettable. It doesn’t help that Barbarella isn’t driving the plot for most of the arc.

I’m also not a fan of Kenyan Yar’s art, which doesn’t capture the look of the character. The perspectives are oftentimes awkward, and Barbarella herself doesn’t have the cool elegance of the original. It’s a shame, because the cover art is uniformly great. The covers made me wish for an arc drawn by one of those artists.

The art for the standalone story was a much better fit for Barbarella’s style and personality. That story follows her as she books passage on a ship towing three bespoke planets to their destinations. When someone sabotages one of the planets, the story turns into a spin on an old-fashioned mystery. I liked it more than the longer arc, but it felt comparatively slight and a bit rushed.

I’m not sure if I’ll read more Barbarella. This volume was a bit shallow, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Yar’s art. I still might watch the movie, though, even if it is super-cheesy and somehow rated PG despite its reputation for innuendo.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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The Little Death of Reality: Alt-Life

Alt-Life by Thomas Cadène

Published: October 17th, 2018
Publisher: Europe Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: ebook
Length: 184 pages

Alt-Life is the story of what happens when two horny French people volunteer as beta testers for an all-encompassing VR experience that lets them escape from the polluted, dying Earth. Once you’re inside the VR devices, which look like giant red eggs full of undulating cilia, the system integrates with your body and you live out the rest of your life on the inside.

For the first year they’re inside the devices, Josiane and René are alone in an infinite world, testing out the system so that the rest of humanity can join them when it’s ready. They explore its limits and discover that there aren’t any as long as your device has enough memory. They also explore every possible sexual fantasy. Josiane sinks into endless hedonism, but René quickly becomes disillusioned with the lack of substance in his imagined encounters and loses his sex drive.

This, then, is where more existential questions come into play. If you can have anything you imagine with the snap of your fingers, does any of it have meaning or value? What does it mean to be rich or powerful in a virtual world? The arrival of other humans in the virtual world brings even more complications because, by that time, Josiane and René have changed in immeasurable ways.

While René and Josiane are inside their virtual world, we also get glimpses of the world outside. It’s obvious that the Earth has become inhabitable, presumably due to some kind of environmental catastrophe (sound familiar?) and humanity has created these bizarre organic VR devices as a way to preserve themselves in some form, even if that means living out the rest of their lives in an imaginary world.

From reading some of the other reviews of this book, it seems like the wall-to-wall sex was a bit much for some readers, but Alt-Life is about more than just sex. Instead, the author explores the nature of humanity and what it could mean to give up on “real life” and retreat into a virtual refuge. It just happens to be a particularly horny refuge.

I especially enjoyed the art style. At first, everything is minimalist, all solid colors and simple lines, but once Josiane and René start letting loose and playing with their abilities, there are huge panels full of bright colors and meticulous detail. It’s a beautiful book. My only criticism is that the dialog is lettered in a tight cursive, which makes it difficult to read.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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The Silliest Quest: Kill the Farm Boy

Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Published: July 17th 2018
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Humor, Satire
Format: ebook
Length: 384 pages

Kill the Farm Boy is a silly book that sends up and undermines some well-worn clichés of the fantasy genre’s hero narrative. It asks questions like “What does it mean to be the Chosen One?” and “Who deserves to be a protagonist?” and then unloads goat poop on them. This succeeds with varying results.

I read most of the book on a three-hour plane ride, and at first I did enjoy it. Somewhere in the middle, though, it started to drag a bit, and I still hadn’t finished it by the time my trip was over. Instead, I switched gears and finished Meddling Kids, which I read at a snail’s pace over the last few months.

I think part of the reason that I lost momentum was that the book started feeling a bit muddled, as though the story underlying the jokes and satire wasn’t as robust as it needed to be. Also, I was no longer trapped inside a metal tube hurtling through the sky, so I had more things to distract me.

The main twist to Kill the Farm Boy is that the protagonist isn’t who you think it’s going to be after the first chapter. When the book opens, we meet an unremarkable farm boy named Worstley anointed as Chosen One by a sketchy-seeming fairy who also gives Worstley’s goat the power of speech. Worstley and Gustave, the goat, set off on a quest to do something or other involving destiny and then the story takes a decisive left turn that I won’t spoil here.

As the adventure continues, the cast of characters grows and we meet an oddball assortment of misfits and outcasts. Each one gets some time in the spotlight, but it’s sometimes hard to tell which character is driving the story, and I quickly forgot the aim of their quest after putting the book down for a few days.

The general silly tone also means that the stakes feel non-existent, even when characters suddenly and unexpectedly die. Every death plays as comedy. Also, there are several moments where it feels like the authors are summarizing something tedious to save time and jump ahead even though the book still feels like an overlong joke.

I definitely laughed or chuckled several times while reading this book, so it was an enjoyable read. I just wish there was something more interesting underneath all the silliness. Not every comic fantasy author can be Terry Pratchett, though they might try.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Infinitely French: Infinity 8, Volume 1

Infinity 8, Volume 1: Love and Mummies

Written by: Lewis Trondheim (Zep)
Illustrations by: Dominique Bertail

Published: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Lion Forge Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Digital
Length: 105 pages

If I didn’t already know that Infinity 8 is a French comic, reading it would make that crystal clear. It has a French feel about it, from the art reminiscent of Moebius, to the laconic dialogue scenes, to (most tellingly) the glimpse of casual nudity and the protagonist who wears a skin-tight spacesuit straight out of 1950s pinup illustrations.

It isn’t a very complex book, but I did enjoy it well enough. The main character, Yoko Keren, is an agent tasked with saving everyone on her ship from certain catastrophe. The captain of her ship is a massive alien who can roll back time eight hours to give them another chance to survive, but it needs her help to know what to expect. This means that Keren can fail up to a certain point, but she has to prevent the ship and captain from being destroyed before they can roll back time.

When Keren goes outside the ship to investigate an anomaly, she discovers a debris field full of dead bodies – a veritable floating space necropolis. Shortly thereafter, she is followed outside by a species of aliens who can’t resist eating the dead, and hijinks ensue. This mostly involves dead things exploding in chunks of gore and aliens chasing her because they want to kill and eat her. She handles all of this with aplomb and never seems particularly ruffled, even when coated with blood and gore or fending off the attentions of an amorous alien.

For some reason Keren is also obsessed with having a baby, constantly scanning everyone around her for their genetic suitability. Mostly this involves scanning aliens and telling them that they wouldn’t work. It’s a very odd detail to include.

I think mostly I enjoyed the art style and the deadpan conversations Keren has with the aliens she meets in space in the middle of a field of corpses. It’s all so very macabre and charming.

The series does continue after this volume, but it feels like it could wrap up here. This volume reads like a fairly self-contained story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would be interested in reading the rest of the series.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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