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  I already said while reviewing Destination: Void that I did not like the direction the story was going in the end, so it should be no surprise that I didn't like The Jesus Incident. A book filled with religious allegory and heavy philosophy about the definition of being human and the essence of religious worship and violence, it was so heavy that I had to make a lot of effort to finish it. I am going to go ahead and assume I didn't really understand it, but the important thing is that I didn't enjoy it. It was like all of the pretentious stuff from Dune got concentrated in Pandora and expanded upon by the contribution of Bill Ransom.

  It's funny that as I was preparing to read the series again, my memories of it from my early teens were corrupted by my own desires, mixed up with Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, muddled by all I have read since. I know feel betrayed, because I really liked the Pandora series when I was a child and now I wonder if I have gotten dumb with age or if I just didn't get what I was reading back then to the point that I hallucinated a whole new narrative and feel.

  So in the previous book a crew of clones on a generation ship construct an artificial consciousness. Because it is fully aware, it is also God-like, controlling space, time and reality. From the book it's not clear how exactly it did it, but, thus equipped, Ship accomplishes its mission to bring its human clone cargo to a habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri system by switching/constructing different realities until a habitable planet exists there. This leads to many histories, many Earths, many types of humans. Or it could have just created the planet out of nothing, then ran some extra realities for fun, although this doesn't explain why the planet was so hostile to a typical human population and makes the existing lifeforms its direct invention and responsibility. Anyway, once there, Ship acts like an omnipotent god, interfering when it feels like it, demanding WorShip and declining to interfere when it suits it, by invoking vague snobby principles that it makes up on the spot or it derives from histories that it otherwise keeps hidden from the human population. Somehow Jesus is involved in all of this, although for the life of me I couldn't see what the connection was.

  Bottom line: I almost hated this book. And it has so many of Herbert's obsessive ideas in it: religion, politics, ecology, evolution of humanity. As much as I respect Frank Herbert as a writer (so much that I am in the middle of rereading all of his books) I have to subjectively review this book alone, and for that I will probably rate it under average.

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  I will be frank (pun not intended) and say that this book shocked me with how good it is. It is not very accessible, as it is fairly philosophical and technical - and the technical side may be a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I think this book shows what Frank Herbert was capable of at the height of his prowess.

  In short, Destination: Void is about a crew of four people on a disabled ship who need to construct an artificial intelligence in order to save the ship and their lives. There is only one snag: no one has managed to successfully build an AI that didn't end up disastrous. Here you have to accept a concept without which the book will not work: that an ultimately conscious entity has full access to the universe, giving them godly powers. This is not only a book about building a computer system, but a philosophical dissection of what consciousness is, what is intelligence, how the human mind works and should we, when building mechanical intelligence, even follow that design as a model.

  This book features many of the brand Herbert ideas: the deeply meaningful thoughts, conversations and actions between an isolated group of people, the inner thought voiced in the writing, the declared and hidden agendas of people, the oppressive society that uses immoral methods to get to its goals, the great potential of human beings that can only be unleashed by extreme circumstances, the religious and sexual components of human drive, the archetypal roles of the characters, etc. And the insane pacing puts those ideas even more into terrifying focus.

  Again, I was amazed by this book, all but the ending. I would have loved an entire series following the spirit of most of it, unfortunately the next three books go in a completely different direction: the nature of godhood. Perhaps that is why this is not considered the first book in the "sequence", but book 0.5, because if the next ones focus on a god, this one focuses on building one. Or perhaps because Pandora is not even part of the story here.

  In conclusion, I recommend reading this book as a standalone story. Kudos if you want to read and enjoy the entire Pandora series, but in my mind Destination: Void is quite different from the others.

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  Frank Herbert's writing feels paradoxical to me, as he examines the minutiae of individual characters or particular scenes, yet his main focus always remains on the situation as a whole. His heroes are worlds entire, with people just instruments of inevitable evolution or death. The Eyes of Heisenberg might be Herbert's alternative to Zamyatin's We or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The same oppressive dystopia of clinical control of society, the rebels, the groups of people vying for control and/or survival, the epic sweeping finale. Yet, where a central protagonist was the focus of those books, this one refuses to hold any one person to a rank high enough to outshine all of the others.

  Imagine a world ruled by Optimen, immortal people living in their own bubble of beliefs and absolute power, served by the Folk, cloned and genetically engineered people destined for a centuries life of predetermined work, yet still mortal, rarely rewarded for their servitude with the permission to procreate. The world has become this after a terrible war between Optimen and cyborgs, in which the Optimen prevailed. A couple of young parents come to the clinic for the "cutting", where the embryo is examined, genetically manipulated against flaws, then put in a growing vat. But this embryo is special! A race between several groups of people is on to hide, preserve, destroy or use it as bait.

  You know that I don't usually describe the book plot in that much detail for fear of spoiling the story, but in this case I feel it is warranted, as The Eyes of Heisenberg is so full of technobabble it takes great effort to start reading it. Once the names and who is who are clear, the book is easy to read, but the beginning of the book... ugh! Especially since genetics wasn't really developed at the time, and all of the futuristic mumbo jumbo is obviously bull.  

  I really liked the idea of the story. Herbert always had great imaginative ideas that were not limited by his ability to express them. He will spend as much time or explanation for any detail or person as he needs, then sweep them over like they never mattered just a bit later. The idea was always first! It took me some time to realize this, but Herbert always rushes the endings. He builds this incredible set of worlds and then, at the very end, he gets impatient and does it over with. It's not as bad as Peter F. Hamilton, but it's there. I guess it takes a lot of determination and planning to keep a consistent pace throughout a book.

  I am sure you will be curious to know if this book, published in 1966, just a year after Dune (together with two other novels), is anything like the book that made Herbert famous. It does. People are cloned in axolotl tanks, organizations form around their approach to the solution of life: technical minded cyborgs, sterile immortals manipulating genes, couriers developing humanistic methods of communication and analysis. Some of the inner thoughts put on page, the tool that made me fall in love with Dune in the first place, is there. There is also that permeating generic idea of the strong coupling between environment and life. Somehow I want Herbert to come back and write books in the Starcraft or Alien universes, I am sure he would have loved those worlds.

  Bottom line: not a perfect book and feeling a bit dated - note that I did compare it with work written three or four decades before - but still entertaining and evocative of Herbert's general ideas and style. Pandora is coming next, all four books.

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  1966 was a prolific year for Frank Herbert. A year before he had published Dune and now he won a Hugo for it, he published the first book of the Pandora series, The Eyes of Heisenberg and the book I am reviewing now: The Green Brain. It features a lot of the recurrent ideas of ecology versus politics, how the environment defines and shapes life, including people, warnings about the human abuse of nature and the deeper interactions between people - complete with inner thoughts, Dune-style.

  However, the book feels rough. The plot is immediately revealed by both title and early scenes, the female character is pretty much a joke and, while the premise is great, the execution is rather bland, for example with characters that appear in some chapters then are completely forgotten, and most of it is a pointless trip through a jungle. I liked it, but I can't but feel that it was something that was partially written in the past and got published only because Dune was a hit.

  I can only recommend it for Herbert fans, because analyzed by its own it's pretty average and has a lot of unfulfilled potential.

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  The Dragon in the Sea could have been a story about real life submariners as, other than a few details really, the novel is barely science fantasy. The story is about a near future in which the West and the East are in an eternal Cold War where no one trusts anyone because of deeply embedded sleeper agents and where conflict is fought in the ocean between sophisticated nuclear submarines over underwater oil reserves. Places like the British Isles have been nuked into oblivion and the big prize is bringing home petrol syphoned from the other side.

  The entire action of the book happens in such a submarine, tasked to go through enemy lines and extract oil from a hidden reserve. There are no chapters, just one long and action filled story. Yet the focus is not so much on the world or the technology, although both are described pretty well, but on the characters, on why and how they function, on what such a prolonged and tense conflict can do to people's psyche. The main character is indeed a psychologist, while also an electronics specialist, in a crew of four - including the captain.

  The careful analysis of character motivation and inner thoughts is reminiscent of Dune, but also the idea of global conflict over a finite resource affecting the entire ecology and sociology of the planet and extreme peril changing people to their core. Ten years before Frank Herbert was publishing Dune, its seeds were clearly already planted.

  To me it was a fascinating read. It was one nonstop trip filled with danger, but the author was clearly interested in how the characters were functioning under extreme stress and how it translated at a very visceral and atavistic level. It was a combination of action and psychoanalysis, still a bit unpolished, but deep and insightful. I liked how Herbert hinted at what the world had come to by just placing a few crumbs of information in an otherwise uninterrupted sub adventure. Imagine Das Boot, but with a socioeconomic and psychological message in it. I liked it! 

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  Unpublished Stories is a collection of 13 short stories written by Frank Herbert and never published during his lifetime, only two of them sci-fi, which was published in 2016.  One can see the focus of Herbert on the characters, on their motivations and their inner thoughts, the way their actions affect the whole.

  The collection consists of:

  • The Cage - a soldier is sent to a psych ward after a head injury where he is tortured by a sadistic caretaker under the threat of pinning some mental illness on him
  • The Illegitimate Stage - a couple of play stage professionals are hired to materialize a play written by a wealthy sponsor, then start to form a bond with the hapless woman
  • A Lesson in History - a husband experiences the tension of remembering his war days and his mistress then, while having to hide all signs from his wife
  • Wilfred - a story about the total psychopathic transformation of a man and the bafflement of society around him
  • The Iron Maiden - a young soldier begs for advice from his more experienced friend on how to woo the girl he is in love with
  • The Wrong Cat - a woman is terrorized by a murderous madman
  • The Yellow Coat - a cowardly man becomes stronger from pushing through danger and trauma, but no one believes it
  • The Heat's On - a fireman investigates a strange series of deaths by fire
  • The Little Window - an unexpected event shakes the owner of a shoe shop and his nephew from their complacency
  • The Waters of Kan-E -  a story of survival in the Polynesian ocean
  • Paul's Friend - another story about survival at sea
  • Public Hearing - a scientist explains to helpless politicians that their armed power has become obsolete when everyone can build a world destroying weapon
  • The Daddy Box - an alien device starts fixing humanity by starting small

 Even without any actual connection to Dune, there is evidence of the seeds of the novel in many of the stories within. For example in A Lesson in History, there is the idea that a woman can discern the thoughts of a man from tiny disparate actions and gestures. In The Yellow Coat a man's psyche is transformed by adversity. In Public Hearing the weapon described is very similar to a Dune lasgun, while The Daddy Box features a way to change a society by tackling the basics of the family unit.

  The stories are short and the collection is not a big book. If you are interested in how Frank Herbert's mind worked, this is something that is worth reading, without any of the stories inside being really that special. I enjoyed the book, but without my interest in the author I would not probably have recommended it to anyone.

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  Oh, the disappointment! Considering I loved the Frank Herbert's Dune books and I've read them repeatedly, I was expecting to at least like something from his son's books set in the same universe. I mean, how bad could it be? He even wrote it in collaboration with a seasoned writer. Well, bad! I hated everything: the writing, the world which is completely different from Frank's, but mostly that Brian Herbert seems to have missed the point of Dune completely!

  Gone are the superhuman abilities of people that had ten millennia to evolve, after escaping A.I. annihilation and brutally training themselves  on hostile planets to become the best version of a human being. Gone are the thoughtful insights into people, the careful dialogues, the grand visions. What we get instead is formulaic trope after formulaic trope, the standard writing style taught by hacks in most "writing classes" in the U.S., dull characters, boring writing, dumb people, unneeded attention to technology and little to worldbuilding or character development, cramming all storylines and possible characters and references to the original books together. And then the way things people have not learned about the Dune universe until the sixth book, just casually blurted in a prequel book, just because Brian wanted to check all the boxes.

  I mean, there were moments when something was happening, like a full Reverend Mother assessing the situation in a dangerous context. And I was thinking "It's on now! She will come with brilliant insights, impossible strategies, use her..." and Brian started to describe the lighting in the room! Consider that this book has a lot going for it in terms of source material. I love the original Dune books so each reference, each character, each world, each culture that existed in those books should have anchored me to this one. But even so I couldn't damn finish it. After three weeks of forcing myself to read it I have barely reach half. No more!

  I am not unreasonable. I know that probably Brian Herbert was pushed to be a writer, even if he didn't have the skills or maybe even the drive. I know that people are not instantly good at what they are doing and that after a shitty book they have the opportunity to grow when writing the next ones. There are 25 books and comics in the Dune universe now! When the hell did he write all of those? Surely at least some of them would be good. But this first one is so bad, so incredibly bland, that I have no desire to read anything written by Brian Herbert ever again, except perhaps the biography of his father. I mean, at least he will have been invested in that one, right? He can't murder his dad's story like he did his legacy!

  I would rather (and I actually plan to) reread everything Frank Herbert ever wrote than try another butchery of Dune by Brian Herbert.

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  Fungi is a short story collection, fantasy and sci-fi, mostly hinging towards horror, edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I am fascinated by fungi and also a horror fan, so I expected to love the book. Well... it was OK. I enjoyed most of the stories, but to be fair, the fungal influence on most plots was either marginal, like some evil affliction evidenced by mycelium growth, or too obvious, like the pulsating life eating and/or controlling mushroom mass.

  It is possible that I bore a grudge from the very moment I started reading the book and expected it to be a novel, only to discover tales too short to get anywhere. It was great to listen to a short while walking the dog and not having to get invested too much, but other than that I was not that captivated. Stories were decent, most of them, but perhaps I was not really in the mood for a collection.

  So, bottom line is that I had expectations set way too high and thus was inevitably disappointed. Didn't learn anything more about fungi, because most of the plots were about infestations that required no understanding of the processes involved.

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  The Year of the Witching is not the kind of book I would normally read, but it was probably recommended by some web site or another, pushing for a masterfully written establishment shaking stunning feminist debut story of female empowerment. And me, like an idiot, bought it. I didn't like the book, but I said I would push against my prejudice and read it to the end. The end was worse than the rest. But don't listen to me: an overwhelming number of positive reviews is there, all from women and the occasional male who is excited on how the story touches on oppression against women and other minorities. So I may be wrong.

  Alexis Henderson's writing was decent, but the story was inconsistent and I almost stopped reading the book a few times. The lead character is a girl who has been raised by a very devout and poor family (who are treated as pariahs) in a closed village of very devout people who worship the Father (their god of light) and hate the Mother (goddess of witches, dark and nature), being in the habit of burning people on pyres as an alternative to a good bath. Our hero is also the daughter of a woman the entire village remembers as a terrible sinner and most likely a witch. So how in the hell does she grow up to be socially integrated, self possessed, intelligent, articulate, well read, capable of anything, from daily tending to flocks of sheep, having public romances with the son of the Prophet and also having the time to visit the woods and read in the library?

  Oh, did I mention that the most eligible bachelor in the village likes her because she is not like the other girls and she is also of mixed color? That's my main complaint regarding the story: the lead character is impossible. I felt she was way more modern than anyone in that silly little village had the right to be and did the work of several people at the same time.

  But I was starting to have high hopes for the end. Will it be a blood bath? Will she side with the oppressed witches or with the people she loves? Will her boyfriend, her grandmother or the witches trick her into doing something completely different from what she thinks she does? Will anyone realize that you need both a father and a mother, not just siding with one parent like an asshole child during a divorce? Will there be any kind of twist? And no. The answer is no. Everybody behaves exactly as their cardboard character allows them to, unless of course the plot needs to spare someone or go into a direction that is very hard to believe it could go.

  Every single character in the book has one role and they conveniently perform it and then they just leave the stage so our heroine might shine.

  And it wasn't even one of those books masquerading as a fantasy only to discuss real social issues like oppression, or using witches as a metaphor for status defying women. I mean, it probably attempted to be one, but it was a really self contained story in a self contained universe. It is just that the book was boring, the plot full of holes and the characters unsympathetic, bland, Mary Sues or all of the above. 

  Bottom line: I can see the author crafting better stories. She is a competent writer. But this book was just bad.

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  Oh, finally, a self contained story in a single book, glorious and fun adventure, witty references and dialogue and absolutely no politics. Kings of the Wyld feels part RPG, part rock concert, part buddy comedy. Nicholas Eames has an easy yet profound way of describing things and writing characters. Best of all, I don't think the next books in the series would continue the story, just be separate stories in the same universe with some common characters. As such, one can enjoy the book as standalone and I've thoroughly enjoyed it!

  At first daunted by the size - I know 500 pages is not particularly huge, but I was in a mood for something light - I started reading it and had trouble putting it down. In the end I just had to not sleep and finish it.

  The story is about the members of an old mercenary band who have to get back together to rescue the daughter of one of them. Their journey takes them through a world split between complacent nations, monsters and old immortals, filled with creatures and fantastic beasts of every kind and finally leads to an epic battle for the soul of adventure.

  The writing style was easy to read, filled with humor, but also profound in the way characters were portrayed. The only character that was kind of fumbled was the daeva, but it ended up OK. Some criticism was raised about the story kind of pushing along like a D&D campaign, with random encounters and solutions out of nothing and it is totally valid, yet the book, while not aiming to be a comedy, never took itself seriously and therefore it felt really entertaining.

  Bottom line: for a debut novel, it's pretty great. I don't know if I will continue to read the series, but I will keep an eye on Nicholas Eames. A must read for adventure fans.

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  Andy Weir does it again, managing to make science and space engineering fun and engaging. In Hail Mary the stakes are a lot higher than in The Martian, because there is more stuff to save like... the world. There are some holes in the logic of the book, but it's a fun read where basically two guys spend the entire book fixing things, researching things and trying to stay alive. In short, if you loved The Martian you will like this book.

  I know these books are not really related and in no way does the author owe me anything, but I got a little disappointed with the now predictable evolution of space story: start with something close to reality, like a manned Mars mission or a Moon colony (hey! These have been realistic for 50 years! Classics!), then immediately find a gimmick that allows you to move among stars where everything is more exciting than in boring Sol system. Bigger, brighter and with more explosions. I understand that is the demand from the public, but what I personally enjoy about Weir's stories is the focus on the character's problem solving process, then using actual science to get by. I don't care about the size of the stakes. The less realistic and immediately possible the plot, the less I feel involved.

  Bottom line: a fun read, similar to The Martian, but bigger.

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  Matthew McConaughey is a well known actor that inspires different things for different people. He's attractive, but intense, easily switching from charming to violently wild. He was for a while the quintessential romantic comedy actor until he suddenly wasn't. He is active socially and spiritually, always coming with some emotional speech about some thing or another. So what would his autobiography be like?

  Well, it was good, but it felt a little too rehearsed even as it was constructed as a collection of unfiltered anecdotes from the author's life. The title, Greenlights, comes from the understanding that some things in life are opportunities for the future. They don't push you forward, but give you the green light to go, they are open doors. Each of the stories in the book represents a greenlight for McConaughey, regardless of how amazing, fantastical, horrible or dangerous they sound.

  In short, his crazy parents instilled in him the moral fortitude to choose and then stick with that choice. From a household in which all emotions were heightened - there is a story where his parents have a fight involving a broken nose and knife swinging, followed by wild sex, for example - Matthew learns to live and love wild but mind the consequences. And then, with a series of greenlight events, he gets into acting and fame.

  The way the author says it, his character was formed before he became famous. If you believe he does crazy stuff now, it's because he was always like this and he chose to do it. The wet dreams that also stand for premonitions on what he has to explore, the naked stoned bongo playing at night, the choice to not accept any rom-com scripts anymore, which led to him not working for two years until Hollywood finally managed to see him as an actor and give him other roles.

  Same thing with love. He had a lot of temporary relationships and sex until he met the woman he saw as "the one", wooed her, married her and they have been together ever since. When he won the Oscar, he lost 30% of his weight for the role. I know this doesn't a performance make, but it shows the way McConaughey makes a choice and sticks with it.

  A relevant quote: "What is success to me? Continue to ask yourself that question. How are you prosperous? What is your relevance? Your answer may change over time and that's fine but do yourself this favor – whatever your answer is, don't choose anything that would jeopardize your soul"

  Now, did I like the book? I feel conflicted about it, as it provided insights into how the man thinks and feels, but which also felt bland and processed. At no time did I feel I was really understanding the person or experience things together with him. As an autobiography it wasn't very effective, but then again the book was never meant to be that, more a statement of belief on how life gives you paths to choose from.

  Bottom line: good, inspiring work, but less personal that I would have liked.

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  Prions are a fascinating subject that we know almost nothing about. They are misfolded proteins that somehow proliferate inside our bodies and kill us with 100% efficiency. The diseases produced by prions are the deadliest there are, yet we know little about how prions multiply and even how they manage to kill us.

  Prions, a Challenge for Science, Medicine and Public Health System is a 2001 summary of works on prions. What does it say? That we don't know much. Then it gets terribly technical and, as I am not a biologist, I've decided to stop reading instead of pretending I understand anything. But I did scour the Internet for newer sources of knowledge and my finding is... that we still know shit about prions!

  So, what does misfolding mean? Prions are proteins, long chain molecules that are at the border of chemistry and mechanics in such a way that the way these molecules come to rest (fold) determines both their chemical and mechanical properties. Somehow (and no one actually knows how) a protein that is manufactured by our bodies (and that we don't really know what does) gets folded in the wrong way, leading to behavior that is detrimental to the body (in ways we don't really know). There is also a mechanism that turns proper proteins to this toxic form, much like a zombie invasion at nanoscale. And we don't know how it works.

  Why does it matter? Well, diseases such as scrapie in sheep, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle (commonly known as "mad cow disease") and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), its variant (vCJD), Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome (GSS), fatal familial insomnia (FFI), and kuru in humans are caused by prions. There is evidence that the same mechanism that destroys the nervous system in these diseases is also at fault with Alzheimer's. A biological weapon using prions, assuming it affects a large portion of a population, would kill 100% of the victims, decades after the weapon was used and without spreading the disease further.

  And why are prions so deadly? Because the immune system doesn't react to them. They are not viruses, they don't have nucleic acids, they are really tiny proteins that slowly but surely spread throughout the body and and up killing the brain of the victim (not unlike zombies, hmm).

  The leading expert in prions is Stanley B. Prusiner, the man who coined the term prion in 1982. The idea that a disease could be spread by just proteins was developed in the 1960 by people such as biophysicist John Stanley Griffith. Prusiner did a lot of work, but even so, there is little we understand about this, more than 70 years later.

  Bottom line: prions are fascinating and show us how much more we have to learn about biochemistry and disease vectors. Even if we hypothesized their existence in the '60s, we still don't know much on how they work. I welcome more research on the subject, as diseases caused by prions, even if rare, are deadly without exception.

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  Lightchaser is a story about complacency, one that faults not our silly human nature but an external alien influence. The "Domain" is the place where numerous human cultures live on thousands of planets and the Lightchaser is a starship pilot that moves from planet to planet giving and collecting "collars" which give the wearer extra status and record all of their life experiences. Further down the line, the company that builds the ships, controller exclusively by AIs, will buy the collars.

  I love Peter F. Hamilton stories because they go far, they allow the reader to dream of futures so vast and amazing that our own existence seems static and impossible to explain. Lightchaser is tiny, self contained, but it breathes the same concept. The book is not the best he wrote and in fact it is a short story with a singular idea, but I enjoyed it. Certainly a fan of Hamilton's, I am going to read everything he ever wrote at one time.

  Bottom line: good hard short sci-fi story. A light (heh!) read.

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  The Library of the Unwritten starts with a magical library which holds unwritten books, whether because their author has not written them yet or never got to before they died. And interesting premise, but one which made me afraid it was similar to Sorcery of Thorns. And I feel bad about it, but I did profile A. J. Hackwith before I started reading, which also filled me with apprehension (authors using their initials only make me suspicious). But the book was great! I am so glad to have been proven wrong.

  I don't want to spoil anything, but enough to say that characters like humans, muses, demons, angels, fallen angels, elder gods and literary characters who took shape in the real world are all characters in the book.

  While the story is a young adult fantasy, the writing is compelling, the characters complex and the plot quite refreshing and captivating. But I have to say I liked the characters the most: tortured souls (befitting a story which takes place in Hell most of the time) who have to resolve their issues in order to grow. All good characters are like that and inspire readers everywhere to do the same. The book also avoided getting mired in occult legislature (like defining a series of rules or a specific magic system) or pushing some gender agenda, instead focusing solely on story and characterization, which I applaud.

  Bottom line: not a masterpiece or anything, but one of the best books I've read recently and a very entertaining vacation read.