the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for August 2020

Machine’s Last Testament by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

published May 2020

where I got it: received eArc (thanks!!)



Generations ago, humanity created an AI to help us become better people. We wanted to be more compassionate, less violent, we wanted to be better versions of ourselves, and we thought an AI could help us do that.


What could possibly go wrong?


At some point in the past, and for some reason, we abandoned the AI on a planet, while we explored the universe. Did the AI need to mature? Did we?



  • AI who loves humanity, what could possibly go wrong? Check.
  • Stylish lesbians? Check
  • Some hot sexytimes? Check
  • Secret identities? Check
  • Subtexts on maturity and transcending our regrets? check.


While we colonized, warred, survived, and lived lives scattered across the stars, the lonesome AI named itself Samsara grew into her programming, and came to find us in our colonies in the dark skies.  Where the Samsara found us, it maimed and destroyed, allowing a small portion of refugees to come live on its planet, Anatta.  Warlords and Empires fell before Samsara.


Immigrants who behave become citizens, with all that the status of citizen offers.


Citizens who misbehave risk losing their citizenship and being sent back to the refugee camps, or worse, being sent to an off-planet refugee work camp.  Samsara, the all seeing AI knows everything about you, where you live, where you work, what you ate for breakfast, who you socialize with, how long you lingered somewhere.  Your thoughts are private, between you and Samsara.  You believe everything you see on television when you live on Anatta, because to do otherwise is to fight an all-powerful AI who is holding your citizenship hostage.


Suzhen Tang works at the Selection Bureau, her job is selecting potential future citizens out of the waves and waves of filthy starving refugees.  And like in C.S.E. Cooney’s Twice Drowned Saint, these people are desperate and will do anything and say anything to get into the famed cities of Anatta.


If only they knew.


As the story first unfolded, I thought Suzhen was boring. I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Well, she’s not boring, she’s careful.  If Samsara were to find out who Suzhen’s parents are, she’d surely be arrested and pulled in for questioning.  Suzhen’s armor is her silence. For her safety, she wears the mask of a shy introvert who has no hobbies. She takes no risk that she might tell her secrets to a friend or a lover.  The few people she socializes with, she won’t even tell them that she was once a refugee too, although I’m sure Taheen guessed ages ago.


Ovuha is a refugee, and Suzhen finds herself drawn to this tall, well spoken woman, and grants her probationary, barely potential citizenship.  Regardless of her  Ovuha will have to prove she is worthy.


This is where I’m gonna stop telling you about the plot, and tell you all the things I loved about this novella, and the one thing I wish had been different in it.  The plot is fucking fantastic, by the way. But you know me, i gotta talk about all the other stuff instead.


First off, the language, oh dear God the prose!  Please let me grow up to be an audiobook narrator so I can read this entire novella out loud! (hmm. . . i do have a voice recorder on my phone…. ) Sriduangkaew does this a lot – these gems of words that are placed just right and phrases are just barely flirting with meter, it’s like walking through prisms of agate and watching the light fragment into all it’s colors, and you just want to fall into it all. Let me try to explain in a way that makes sense – if you read This is How You Lose The Time War and thought to yourself “this language is beautiful, but this plot is I dunno?”, and you wanted to get you a novella that can do both, Machine’s Last Testament is that novella.


Yeah, so I have a total fan-girl crush her writing style, ok?

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, and if you follow me on twitter, you know that I love to cook.   One of my favorite food websites has long been Serious Eats, home of recipes, knife skills videos, How-To’s, podcasts, and all sorts of “how the heck to make this?” info.   Since I’ve been following Serious Eats for ages, I’ve also been following J. Kenji López-Alt for ages, everything from how to make perfect hard boiled eggs, to him showing us how to make Detroit Style Pizza (I love you Buddy’s!),  to his tips for just about everything else, and me drooling over The Food Lab.  Those pickles I never shut up about, and put on everything? They’re based on Kenji’s recipe.


J. Kenji López-Alt is currently the Chief Culinary Advisor at Serious Eats, and the chef and partner at Wursthall in San Mateo, California. His first book, The Food Lab, won the James Beard Award for General Cooking.

His newest book, Every Night is Pizza Night, is a children’s book about a little girl who goes on a culinary adventure. Illustrated by Gianna Ruggiero, it comes out on Sept 1st and is currently available for pre-order.  Every Night is Pizza Night promises to get even the pickiest eater excited about trying something new!   You can learn more about Kenji at his website, or by following him on twitter @kenjilopezalt, and you can learn more about illustrator Gianna Ruggiero by checking out her website,


(Yes, I know this is a book blog, and I know it is a science fiction and fantasy book blog. But I love cooking just as much as I love reading!  and I love reading about cooking, and I love home made pizza, and I love pizza from Buddy’s Pizza!)


When Kenji posted on twitter that he had a new book coming out, and would any bloggers be interested in interviewing him, I leapt at the chance.  He is a cooking hero of mine.  And that is how an interview with a chef, about a children’s book, showed up on a science fiction and fantasy book blog.

We better get to the interview, before I spend this entire blog post just telling you cool Kenji is.


Little Red Reviewer:  You’re a chef, a food columnist, and a kitchen science educator. Why write a kid’s book?

J. Kenji López-Alt: Because I had a daughter! I’ve loved books and especially children’s books for my whole life, and having my own child gave me the kick in the pants I needed to try and write one myself. I wrote the book just for her, but I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with my editors and publishers at W.W. Norton and now my illustrating partner, Gianna Ruggiero, which allowed me to bring it out into the wider world. It comes out September 1st, but I’ve been reading an advance copy to my daughter now for several months. She loves it and asks me to read it to her regularly, so no matter how well the book does as far as sales go, I feel like I’ve already accomplished my goal in writing it.

LRR:  Where did the idea for Pipo and and her neighborhood-spanning eating adventure come from? What were your inspirations for Pipo’s experiences with her friends?

J.K.L.: As the son of a Japanese mother and American father, now married to a Colombian woman, food diversity and cultural diversity has always played a huge role in my life. I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with immigrants from all over the world. In college, I lived in a house that was around 80% international students, and as I was learning to cook, I took that opportunity to talk to them about food from their homes and learn as much as I could about cuisines from all over the world. I think food is an important window into culture and history, and being open to new food experiences helps people be open to differences in culture and background. It’s a lesson that I think is important for young kids (especially picky eaters), so it seemed like a natural theme for me to explore. The shape of the story and her neighborhood was a total collaboration between me and my partner Gianna. We both grew up in multicultural cities, and I think Gianna’s illustrations of the neighborhood are incredible. I knew from the start that I wanted Pipo to learn about foods from all over the world, but the idea to contain it all within a single neighborhood came from me and Gianna’s collective experiences growing up.

LRR: What was it like to work with illustrator Gianna Ruggiero? How did the two of you work together to ensure her artwork conveyed the story you were telling? Do you have a favorite image that she created?

J.K.L: The experience was incredible. Gianna has such an imaginative, intelligent, and thoughtful mind and that’s reflected in her illustration style. We found each other via social media, but as soon as I saw her portfolio, I knew that I wanted to work with her. She has the ability to give characters personality and depth without any words at all, and that’s so important in a children’s book. The words and story are important, but equally important is the feelings and ideas that are conveyed outside of the words.

Collaborating so closely with someone on an artistic project was something brand new to me. I’m much more used to working alone and developing my own ideas, whether in writing or cooking or other fields. Learning to trust my partner and being open to outside ideas was essential. At the start, I felt the urge to write the story and describe exactly what I wanted the illustrations on each page to look like, but after talking with other children’s books authors, I realized that this was not the best way to work with an illustrator. Instead, I ended up writing the words, describing the personalities of the characters, then letting Gianna use her own skills to populate the world and bring the story to life. I cannot stress enough how important she was to the whole process. This is not my book, it’s ours.

LRR: I see Every Night is Pizza Night has a Pizza recipe! So, is that recipe for a New York style slice or a Detroit style square?

J.K.L.: Neither! It’s a pan pizza, which is more similar to a Detroit-style pizza, but it’s done in a round pan (either a cake pan or a cast iron skillet). I think it’s the easiest, most foolproof pizza recipe out there, and one that kids can very easily help out with at all stages of the process. I make it with my daughter regularly.

LRR: How is writing a book for children (and their parents!) different from writing, say, The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: It’s much, much harder! Most professional writers will tell you that hardest part of successful writing is finding your “voice.” The thing that makes your writing distinctly you, and that works for both you and your audience. My food writing voice is something that I’ve been writing in for decades now to the point where it’s second nature. So writing a big book like The Food Lab is a lot of work, but it’s work that flows easily and naturally for me now. Finding my children’s book voice was extremely difficult and time consuming. It involved lots and lots of research (I.E. ordering and reading hundreds of children’s books to see what I liked, what I didn’t, what made me laugh, what themes I connected with, etc.), then lots and lots of writing. For several months I would take my laptop to my restaurant after my daughter went to bed, and just sit and write for a few hours. The original story for Every Night is Pizza Night started at over 10,000 words and went through dozens of stylistic shifts, tonal shifts, changes in voice, and changes in theme until I was satisfied with it.

A lot of the art of editing lies in efficiency – making sure that every word you use expresses meaning in an efficient way. In children’s writing, this is taken to the extreme. You really have to learn to let go and understand that words in children’s books can merely be suggestive, allowing the illustrations and imagination do the work of adding complexity to characters and themes. The other difficult part in children’s book writing is that you need to write a story that works both for children and adults. Children are very sensitive to their parent’s feelings. If I laugh at something, my daughter will laugh at it too, sometimes without even understanding what it is she’s laughing at. If a parent is having fun reading, then their kid is going to be more likely to enjoy it as well. Every Night is Pizza Night has jokes and references in it that I hope work on both levels – for the children and their parents.

LRR: Would you do another children’s book if you had the opportunity? How about another kitchen chemistry book like The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: Absolutely. Writing a children’s book has been extremely rewarding, and it hasn’t even been released yet! I am currently working on a big food science book on cooking in a wok and things related to wok cooking, but after that I plan on focusing my attention on more children’s books. Gianna has some great ideas that we want to work on as well.

LRR: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! Is there anything else you’d like to share about Every Night is Pizza Night?

J.K.L.: Just that I hope you enjoy it, and I hope folks enjoy reading it with their kids and cooking up a storm afterwards.

LRR: Thank you so much! Interviewing you has been a dream come true for me!

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Empire of Masks #3)

published Aug 11, 2020

Where I got it: got an eARC



Trigger warnings:  Cancer. Body horror.  Asymptomatic, highly infectious, and deadly diseases.


I’ve never put a trigger warning on a review before. But then again, I’ve never read a book like this before.  Also? This review rambles all over the place and is way, way too long. #sorrynotsorry.


I’m always wary of books that are described as “ambitious”.  It’s an unfair bias of mine, I know, but I see “ambitious”, and I think “that author bit off more than they could chew”.  Takes one to know one, my favorite hobby is biting off more than I can chew, so I get the allure, trust me.


The Tyrant Baru Cormorant?  Oh yeah, this whole series is the definition of “ambitious”, and thankfully not my definition.   So often, the tag of “ambitious” leads to me being disappointed. Not this time!  This series covers imperialism, colonialism,  extortion and blackmail, nature vs nurture,  multiple solutions to the same problem,  advanced medical procedures (and, um, weaponized diseases), so much manipulation, and the kind of enforced cultural norms that makes 1984 or Brave New World look like a saturday morning kids cartoon.  Yes, it’s ambitious to the teeth, and yes Dickinson succeeds.


I’ve not been able to shut up about Baru Cormorant for the last few years. I love what this story says about societies and cultures, how to destroy them and how to keep them safe.  I love that while the story is about Baru, she’s not the center of the story (even though she thinks she is). I love that this series is bigger than just her, it’s bigger than what she knows.  To steal from Dark, what she knows is a drop, what she doesn’t know is an ocean.


It would take me a year to explain everything that’s going on in this book, and as it’s the third in a series, this is literally a volume in which everything comes together,  alliances are redefined to expose empire-destroying secrets, entire continents are brought into world-spanning negotiations, diseases and cures are bargained for, and a truly glorious long game comes to fruition.    There is seriously about five series worth of characters, ideas, and material crammed into three books, and it works.


Sorry, I’m gonna be spoiling books one and two.  But the spoilers? Believe it or not, they don’t matter.  It’s the pure gorgeousness of the prose, the characters, the depth of all the shit that is going on, that is what’s gonna knock your socks off of this series.  Doesn’t matter if i tell you the plot spoilers, because that isn’t going to spoil the best stuff, trust me.


Alright, so a super fast sum-up, because there is too much to explain.  When the Empire of Masks came to Baru’s blissful village, they brought coin, trade, schools, vaccines, and their definition of cleanliness. A savant of sorts, Baru was chosen to attend their schools and take their exams.  When the Empire destroys her family, she vows to destroy them, from the inside out.     First step to destroying the Empire to pass their stupid test, and work her way up the ladder in their bureaucracy. Passing the test was easy.  Crashing the currency of Aurdwynn was easy.  Earning the trust of her allies? Understanding the family entanglements and regional relationships in Aurdwynn? Knowing who she can trust? Not so much.


(reading reviews, as opposed to my half-assed summaries more your thing? No problem. link to:  Review of book #1, The Traitor Baru Cormorant and review of book #2 The Monster Baru Cormorant)


Also? It’s really easy to be both naive and drunk on power when you’re like nineteen years old and have a  handler who constantly tells you how smart and how wonderful and how special you are.


In the ensuing invasion, Baru suffers a traumatic brain injury, permanently affecting her vision and perception.  There’s way more trauma to come, by the way, which we won’t talk about because spoilers.


In the second book, after “passing a test”, Baru is “gifted” with being taken back to the Imperial capital, Falcrest. As the only hostage-less cryptarch, no one quite knows what to do with her.  Yes, people had issues with the middle book, The Monster Baru Cormorant, and I understand those complaints. It’s very much a “middle book”, Baru doesn’t seem to know who she is,  she seems be pushed around more than usual,  etc.   I chose to view what she was doing as she was learning how the empire works, learning how the game of the larger world works,  trying to avoid the murderous gaze of Xate Yawa,  maybe starting to understand “the Farrier process”, and oh yeah, trying to recover from a brain injury, all at the same time.   I had a lot of sympathy for her, ok? And stop paying attention to what isn’t happening and start paying attention to what is happening. All that stuff with the Mbo Federal Princes? Pay attention, because that’s the important stuff.


Ok, all caught up?


Getting into the third book, what struck me as funny, was how small the Empire of Masks is on an actual map of the known world.   Like, they see themselves as the best, biggest, baddest,  bestest thing in the world, and the rest of the world is like “who are you again? Should I know you?”


This final book in the series has a ton of flashbacks. Not flashbacks of Baru’s youth, but flashbacks of Tau Indi’s youth, when Tau was just learning how to be a Federal Prince, alongside their best friends Kindala and Abdumasi, and what exactly happened that year that Cosgrad and Cardine spent with them. It was a year of jealousy and unspoken feelings, and Tau felt left behind when Abdu and Kindala decided what they needed to do, and didn’t discuss their decisions with Tau, who is convinced all can be solved through through the Mbo concept of trim.  Kindala and Abdu come up with their own solutions, solutions they don’t feel they can share with Tau.   (all the flashbacks make books 2 and 3 feel like one long book. I highly suggest binge reading this series so you can experience is as one long story, instead of three novels)


Meanwhile, in the now, Baru still has grand plans to destroy the empire from the inside. Her private polestar is “What would Tain Hu do?”,  and thinking about Tain Hu’s moral code keeps Baru in check, and helps her make better decisions.     Oh, and she found the Cancrioth, and the biological weapon that keeps the secret safe.

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Hey!  I was on a YouTube!  I moderated the Apex Magazine Q&A with the Editors.  Here’s a link to the Youtube!


The Q and A is with editors Jason Sizemore, Lesley Conner, Maurice Broaddus, and Shana DuBois. We got tons of cool questions, including questions about the financial dangers of putting fiction online for free, is funding through Kickstarter sustainable, what is the editor’s and slush readers process, what was Maurice’s vision for the Afrofuturism issue,  why is the magazine switching to 6 issues per year instead of 12, and more.  We had some technical issues with the Livestream, but the evening was a ton of fun, and now the video is on Youtube, forever!

oh, have you backed the Apex Mag kickstarter yet?

I am really excited for that Special Indigenous & Native Fantasists issue, I hope we get it!


sneak peak of the video:

oh, didn’t I mention? my big hair, Totoro, and some of my dinosaurs made a cameo.


I’ve done youtube chats, and podcasts, but the amount of backchannel chatter happening in something like this, it was unreal! and by unreal, what I mean was it was a thrill! all the behind the scenes stuff (that you don’t see!) gave me so much nostalgia of when I was a back stage theater kid in high school.  We knew what was happening on stage, on both wings, in the back, behind the scrim, up in the spot booth, at the board, everywhere.

SO FUN!!!!

Ok,  let’s get into it with Dread Nation.  This book has been on my TBR for ages, I just never got around to picking up a copy. When a friend of mine mentioned she had two copies, I asked to borrow one.   The only things I knew about this book, before I read it were:

  • I am in love with the dress she is wearing on the cover
  • The book is about killing zombies
  • Something alternate history civil war something?


First off, I really liked this book, but I also had some issues with it (not the issues you might think!).


and LOL, I thought this was going to be a hard review to write . . . .  Skip to the end if you don’t want to read 1200 words of me rambling.


The gist of the story is this –  instead of the South surrendering, the American Civil War was sort of “put on hold”, because the dead were rising as Zombies.  The Union and the Confederacy stopped fighting each other, and instead used their dwindling troops to fight an ever growing army of the shambling dead.


To keep civilians safe, governors, mayors, and other civic leaders need to come up with something, and need to come up with something fast.  But who counts as a civilian? Who counts as being worth keeping safe?  Well, it’s the 1870s, all the civic leaders are white, white people are landowners and tax payers, so basically, white people are considered worth keeping safe. Black people and Native Americans are sent to combat schools, where they will learn to fight the shamblers.  Thanks to the Negro and Native Reeducation Act, it isn’t a choice – you will attend the school, you will be re-educated that protecting white people is your place. If your free will can’t be educated out of you, it will be beaten out of you. (In Ireland’s Author’s Note,  she implores the reader to learn more about the United States’ system of removing Native children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, to be “civilized”.)


Jane’s mother tried to keep her home, and hidden, as long as possible. But the day came when the truancy officers couldn’t be resisted, and Jane found herself at Miss Preston’s Combat School for Negro Girls, in Baltimore, where along with combat skills she will also learn how to behave in civilized society.  If she’s very lucky,  Jane will become a personal bodyguard for a white woman. If she isn’t lucky, she’ll be sent to the front lines.  Jane is talented, but impulsive. She loves reading, and she’ll trade just about anything for the newest pulp novel.


And if Jane is very, very unlucky, if she stumbles onto a dangerous secret, she’ll be thrown into a train car and sent to the frontier.


The first half of the book is some hijinks at the school,  the reader getting introduced to Jane’s friends, and Jane sharing some details of her youth. Told in first person, it’s interesting to see what she chooses to omit, and how she makes excuses for getting into trouble at school. Jane has a fairly narrow worldview (or puts on like she does), and I’m not sure how I felt about that.  The second half of the book, which I won’t tell you much about because spoilers, takes place in a frontier town called Summerland.


I really dig that each chapter starts with a snippet of a letter that Jane is writing to her mother, and then later in the book (not a spoiler), the chapters start with a snippet of a letter that Jane’s mother has written to her.  It made me chuckle, in the beginning, that Jane is getting into trouble at school, and how she glosses this over in her letters home.  What I should have been paying closer attention to, is if Jane is glossing things over, what is her mother glossing over?

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I’m places*!


I was interviewed by my friend Leigh at Semiotic Standard about my experiences interviewing authors, and all the fun stuff that happens behind the scenes:


This Sunday I’ll be moderating this live Q&A with the Apex Magazine editors Jason Sizemore, Lesley Conner, Maurice Broaddus, and Shana DuBois!  (Thank you to our 516 backers!)





*virtually.  the place I’m actually at is the living room sofa. or at my desk, which is next to the sofa.

Of the three things I’m talking about today, I have finished reading exactly one of them:


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (the one that I have finished) – I have so, so much to say about this book. But as pertains to this particular blog post, what I expected was 300 pages of zombie thwacking action, what I got was that the zombies aren’t the real monsters, the racists are.   Fun read, great characters,  I highly recommend.


Machine’s Last Testament by Benjanun Sriduangkaew – I’m about 2/3 of the way through this far future space opera/spy thriller/escape the AI story. Prisoners of War are brought to the planet Anatta, to see if they are worthy of citizenship.  The worldspanning AI Samsara controls all aspects of Anatta, studies humanity, and systematically attacks all other human settlements, bringing more prisoners to Anatta. You can’t even tell your best friend your secrets, because Samsara is always listening.  Excellent read, I highly recommend! The story has political intrigue, hidden identities, romance,  and oh yeah, freakin’ gorgeous prose. (if you were one of those people who loved the prose of This is How You Lose The Time War, but wished that there was more there there, Machine’s Last Testament is the book for you. the two titles are about the same length, too)


I watched the first two episodes of Brave New World on Peacock (it was free). Not sure if I’ll continue in the series, and it’s probably been ten years since I read the book, so couldn’t tell you how faithful the TV show is. Anyway. . .  in the future, everyone is happy, all the time. Not feel super happy? Take a drug that will make you happy.  Privacy is unheard of,  as is being raised with a family.  Want to experience the filth and unhealthyness of the horrible past? Visit a theme park to see a shotgun wedding, nuclear families, and natural pregnancies.  I’ll reread the book, but am undecided on if I’ll continue w/the show. I liked the art direction, but the garbage quality subtitles* were a huge turn off.


Through a perfect storm of coincidence, I am reading/watching all of these things at the same time, and my brain went flippity flop, and found the common ground between these three stories:


the people running the show – the white leaders in Dread Nation, Samsara, whoever runs the city in Brave New World – these people LOVE what they’ve created.  They have made a city on the hill where everyone is safe and happy and protected  . . .  and where everyone knows their place.  And the people actually living there?  eh, if they only accepted their place, they’d be happy too, right?


I think that’s what hit me so hard –  that the people living there, they are told to be happy in their place. Know your place. Stay in your lane. Be thankful we’ve found a place for you here. Others of your kind aren’t this deserving. You should be thankful.   Your superiors know what’s best for you.  (excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little)

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.