Alpinerx Alive Fitness Watch Review

Alpinerx Alive Fitness Watch
Alpinerx Alive Fitness Watch

The Facebook commercials trying to get me to buy a Swiss watch finally worked when Alpina marketed their new heart-rate monitoring fitness watch at 50% off with custom configurations. That merely made it ludicrously expensive, as opposed to unattainable.

It took a good while to receive it, but I’ve now lived with it for a week, and can share my experiences.


The watch came in one of Alpina’s typical cardboard / leatherette display boxes with a little pillow. The charging clamp came in a hard case which was also in a very classy cardboard box, and the spare straps came in… a torn envelope? Regardless, the quality of the packaging was fine for this category of watch, and definitely a bonus if giving it as a present. Very much something from a watch company, not a tech product.

Ease of Use / Manual

This is where my critique starts. The watch came with a couple of thick booklets, which consisted of very generic instructions for multiple calibers/watch models in multiple languages, and were pretty much useless for this model. There was a little card insert with a link to a FAQ in tiny print; the FAQ was fairly useful. Otherwise I had to Google a manual for the watch, and the manual doesn’t really do a particularly good job at describing the watch or its functions, and both it and the FAQ seem to be flat-out wrong in some cases (claiming that some functions are performed with the buttons when they’re actually only possible with the touch screen), and they miss some other features I had to figure out with trial and error.

This is a brand new product which I ordered before it was even made in a crowdfunding campaign, but the documentation definitely fell short of what I’d expect of any fitness watch, let alone a premium one.


To nobody’s surprise the watch comes with a smartphone app. In fact, you cannot set the time of the watch any other way — which also means that if you, on purpose, would like to set your watch some minutes fast, you can’t.

In general the app is quite good. I find it more pleasant to use than the FitBit equivalent. The information I want is right there when I open it. You can use it to configure which watch screens are available and in which order, but beyond that the configuration options are meager. For example, each of the screens is what Alpina defined, you cannot configure the layout or elements at all. Luckily they’re all great, and I haven’t found a particular desire to change anything.

One bummer is that the sleep data isn’t automatically available in the morning, it takes a few minutes from when you look at it before it gets downloaded and analyzed.

One fantastic feature is a charge notification — once your watch is fully charged, the app gives you a notification of this, so you don’t forget the watch in the charger for the entire day.

In general your heart rate etc. are immediately available on the screen, some of the watch-specific things, like battery level, require you to navigate to a screen which is a bit laggier as it forces a resync of the watch.

The app has integration with FitBit and Withings and Apple Health; just what this nets you is a bit unclear to me yet.

Fitness Features

Alpina App Respiration Screen
Alpina App Respiration Screen

This is not an active sport fanatics watch with a gazillion features. It tells the time (plus a “world time” from another city you choose), date, your heart rate, weather, potentially some sleep statistics, and for exercise your speed and distance, and that’s pretty much it. The ads kept mentioning VO2, I’m going to have to ask whether that will be added later or if I’m just too dense to find it.

The big news here is that this watch actually accurately and reliably measures my heart rate. There’s not even a competition vs. either my FitBit Charge 2 or my earlier Microsoft Band 2. The Alpina just works.

Under normal operation, it apparently measures your heart rate every minute or so; during exercise it goes into a more frequent mode (I read somewhere that it would be every 10 seconds, but can’t confirm that.) Regardless of how it does it, when chilling I get my heart rate, and when going up a hill and huffing and puffing I get my heart rate, and they match reality.

The exercise mode can also use a built-in GPS to track your run/walk/hike, and keep the AMOLED display on, and… will drain your battery in a hurry. I’m not sure how much of it is the GPS and the screen, but you’re only getting 3-4 hours with the screen and GPS on. Not really usable. As to exercises, there are a myriad of varieties, and they come in the way Alpina deemed fit to give you, and you can neither narrow down the list nor change the order. However, due to the stateful nature of the UI, this isn’t a huge deal if you tend to stick with one kind of exercise.

It does have an auto-detection feature (at least in the app) where it figures out if you did something resembling exertion, and suggests to you that you can flag it as a workout.

A feature that the FitBit didn’t have is a measurement of your breathing rate (respirations per minute) which is available through the app.

One bizarre omission is the floor counter. The watch does count distance/steps, but it does not count stairs climbed / elevation. This is something I quite miss from the FitBit.

Other Features

There is a chronometer, a count-down timer, an alarm (tactile only, the watch makes no sound), an alternative second time zone, weather report, an interactive breathing exercise, a reminder to get active, the possibility to show incoming WhatsApp, SMS and several other kinds of messages on the watch screen, a hydration counter where you can log your water intake, a calorie consumption extimator, and step counter. What it’s missing from some other models are altimeters, UV sensors and really any other sensors.

User Interface

As solid as the watch is, the user interface seems like a bit of an experiment. You have a crown which actually does absolutely nothing except for being a button. You can’t set the time or pull it out or achieve anything by turning it. Then you have two push buttons, which do almost nothing; you use them for the chronometer function, and… really almost nothing else.

The crown turns on the AMOLED screen and cycles through the screens.

Pretty much everything else you do with the “touch screen,” which basically just means swiping left or right, and for certain things (dismissing displayed WhatsApp messages, starting and stopping exercise etc.) get an OK/Cancel or Start/Stop buttons on the screen, and you just press on the glass. I’m not sure how this works, I certainly hope it doesn’t mean that the sapphire glass is extrasuperspecial

Overall the touch screen, to me, is a bit annoying and occasionally unresponsive. There is also a tactile feedback feature; if you’re trying to swipe past the end of the list, or do similar things, the watch vibrates. This is however so faint that I’m having trouble registering it, and that means I’m poking at my watch like an idiot. I’d definitely love to make more use of the physical buttons or even a turnable dial on the crown.

As an aside, a cute / annoying feature is that to make the AMOLED visible when the hands are in the way, the watch will rotate the hands out of the way before turning on the screen, so at 6:30 you have to wait a few seconds for the hands to get out of the way before you get a display, whereas at 12:00 the screen turns on  immediately.

One area where this differs from the FitBit and some other similar trackers is the memory of where you were. When you turn on the AMOLED, it shows you whatever screen you were on when it turned off. Within those screens, for example for activity selection, the same holds. You only have to sort through the gazillion activities once to find walking, the next time you go to start an exercise, it defaults to walking. Compared to my FitBit this makes the Alpina more pleasant to use.

Battery and Charging

One of the reasons I went for this watch instead of, say, an Apple Watch, was battery life. Similar to my FitBit it’s supposed to last ~5 days, and so far that seems relatively accurate. I can also get a very accurate reading in percent through the app, which makes it easier to decide whether to charge it or not.

Alpinerx Alive Fitness Watch Charging
Alpinerx Alive Fitness Watch Charging

The charging is another area where Alpina needs to rethink their approach. The watch comes with a rather bulky clip (with a USB A connector; you have to provide your own power source). The clip and cable are very well made, and the clip has a silicone pad for the glass, but the whole thing is bizarrely finicky to get a good contact, and twice now I’ve set the watch to start charging, as indicated by the screen, and as soon as I set it down something jostles and I come out of the shower to find it hasn’t charged at all. Not cool, Alpina.

That said, whether the watch is charging or not is clearly indicated by a charging screen which stays on during the charge duration, and the default setting is to enter a “demo mode” after the watch is fully charged and connected to power, where it cycles through the AMOLED screens. In addition to the app notification, this makes it very easy to tell whether it’s still charging or done.

Fit, Finish and Design

The watch comes in a dark blue specialty glass fiber / plastic case, or a stainless steel one. I wanted something lighter, cheaper, and more forgiving of scratches, so went for the plastic case. It’s very solid and feels like great quality. The bi-directionally rotating bezel is way too easy to rotate for my taste, as it’s easy to knock it around.

Overall the body, face, bezel and entire package are very much a high-quality product, and you can feel the value for price here.

The watch is fairly large, but to my surprise it is actually much more comfortable than the FitBit. I can wear it higher up on the wrist, and it just stays put without having to be tightened down excessively. The heart rate monitoring works perfectly while the watch is at a normal, comfortable level of pressure you’d use for a normal wristwatch, unlike the FitBit which required uncomfortable levels of tightening to have any hope of a reading.

There are multiple kinds of straps available; because of incentives I opted for a weird carbon-fiber-style leather affair, a more sporty fabric version, and a claspless velcro fabric strap. I skipped the diver-style rubber option. While good quality, the straps were fairly stiff, so opening and closing them to take the watch off for showering was a bit of a pain, and I am for now using the velcro one. It should be noted that this is very fancy velcro, the strap has specific fine pads that grip the strap, and so far it looks like it’s not going to cause the usual velcro fraying. Fundamentally, I put it on in the morning after my shower, and I don’t fiddle with the adjustment until the next morning. Even sleeping with it is fine.

I sleep in the dark, and the FitBit worked quite well with its wrist motion detection; if I woke up at night and wanted to know the time, I would just lift my hand and it would show the time. The Alpina does have luminous hands and markers on the bezel, but the glow after five hours is too dim for me to reasonably see, and then I have to press the button and wait for the display to turn on. Not as handy..

Alpina makes a different women’s watch where the digital screen is hidden behind a seamless face, and you can only tell it’s there when it’s on. I would have greatly preferred that, the ana-digi cutout (especially in some other outrageously expensive Swiss watches) always struck me as a bit of a cheap cop-out. That said, everything else looks great, I love the design, and the screen is vibrant and bright and contrasty, and works well both at night and in sunlight, and the heart rate and weather screens make most of the resolution. (It’s certainly not a high-DPI display, mind, but sufficient to cram a few lines of text in.)


This was a complete luxury / pamper myself purchase after our annual performance pay came in; it’s hard for me to justify the price otherwise. That said, I’m very happy with the price-performance ratio. It’s comfortable, it does what I want it to do far more reliably than any heart rate monitoring device I’ve had before (including chest straps!) and I like the look. Certainly not worth the list price, but at 50% off, if you want to go for luxury and are after something that looks more like a real watch than an Apple Watch or one of the Garmin/Suunto style ultra-athlete tools, it’s not a bad choice. It’s been on my wrist pretty much continuously after I received it, which says all there is to say in the end.

New World Magischola


This June I had the privilege of attending the first run of New World Magischola. This is a weekend-long live action roleplay (LARP) event set in a contemporary wizard school, in the vein of The Magicians, Dresden Files, Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the like. It’s based on an iconic larp College of Wizardry, held in a real castle in Poland, but brought over to the United States, and set in a world specifically crafted to honor and highlight the history of North America’s various magic heritages. In its scale and design it is unique in the United States, and arguably in the world, as it takes the basic idea from the College of Wizardry, and adds a layer of social re-engineering of the world and the running of the game.

One of the promotional videos of the event, to give you an idea of the location and what it looked like in practice.

In summary, New World Magischola was an amazing event which lived up to every ounce of hype that surrounded it. Read on for a more involved explanation of what it was, and why I liked it so much.

Roxanne Laroche showing off her familiar to Brisha Gonzalez. Photo: New World Magischola

What is Larp?

There isn’t a simple or easy answer, but for me a larp is any event where I and others take on a character different from ourselves, and interact as those characters would. This would technically include things like professional people skills training, some forms of therapy, and renaissance festivals, and I’d indeed include those activities.

There are many different kinds of larps. There are “boffer” larps in which people use foam or latex weapons to engage in actual physical battles; there are many different kinds of rulesets, with characters having abilities and skills that are measured with some kind of rating, and there are clear conflict resolution mechanisms, whether rock-paper-scissors or point addition and subtraction. On the other hand, there are much more social larps, and on the far end of that are so called “Nordic Larps,” of which the College of Wizardry and New World Magischola are examples.

The Nordic Larp web site has a good introduction; some of the central concepts are “play to lose” — instead of trying to succeed in your character goals, you’re open to failing in a task or goal if it might lead to a better story. They’re inherently cooperative shared storytelling. They have a heavier emphasis on verbal and social interaction than solving puzzles or physical conflict. They’re WYSIWYG, dispensing with colored ribbons or hand signals to signify statuses such as invisibility or flying. This all feeds into the goal of immersion, of really being the character. You might think of it is method acting. Being in character, feeling as the character, interacting with other characters and helping them experience the world is the goal, not solving a mystery or achieving an external goal.

New World Magischola

Azra Bloom and Delilah Eversong in a heated discussion.

Photo: New World Magischola

The Magischola larp was done via kickstarter, with ~170 tickets for sale. It sold out in about 90 seconds. The organizers added three additional weekends and all but the last sold out. Each weekend is a rerun with the same characters being played by different people (although some players signed up for more than weekend, or played a character in one, a staff member in another, or volunteered). Obviously there’s a lot of desire to experience this kind of an adventure and be a wizard! Many College of Wizardry veterans attended, as did veteran larpers and industry insiders, but there were also many first-timers who had never larped before. There were young people (18 was the minimum age) and there were parents with their grown children.

The event took place on the University of Richmond campus; with its quirky architecture and great public spaces it was a spread out but wonderful venue. We had two residence halls, a central place for organizational support — registration, game running logistics, store and so forth — and a few classroom buildings. It wasn’t a castle, but it was still great.

The setting is a wizard college; you’ve gone through K-12, and are now at a 3-year program. Magischola is set in current time, and current world events are part of the setting — however, magic is real, and so are werewolves, vampires, fairies and other creatures. Those who can do magic are inducted into the secrets of this world of magic, the Magimundi, and especially descendants of well-off wizard families have next to no interaction with the mundane world that we’re familiar with. There is a strict edict of secrecy and separation, and it is highly forbidden to reveal the existence of this supernatural realm to mundane world. It has its own justice system, governance, economy and education system.

The college had various majors, professors, school officials, and five houses that students divide into. The mechanism for house selection was akin to a greek rush or a sports draft; first year students would submit their preference, and could work to get school points (merits) or do other things to impress their desired houses so they would pick them.

As a student, you go to classes and engage in whatever a student at a wizard college would. The refrain was “This is a game about being a student at a wizard college!” Not a game about being a student and fighting a great evil or monsters; those things were extra. While it might sound anticlimactic, that wasn’t the case at all. So much play and conflict and drama arose from just having different personalities with different motivations and agendas stirring the pot.

Thomas Hall, one of two dorms for the game.

The Magimundi isn’t a derivative work or fan fiction. It’s been influenced by the world of the College of Wizardry, and indeed both coexist in the same universe, but the organizers of Magischola, Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, set out to create a real, complex universe. Since the game is so large and cooperative, there has been a lot of input from many people, and it arguably has resulted in a framework much deeper than any single person could’ve achieved.

Instead of the way an author might want to completely define their world, however, many things about the Magimundi are left intentionally vague, so each and every player can color in whatever they want. The world defines several fault lines; a prison-industrial complex, indentured servitude, past and current injustices against non-humans, forcible removal or wizard children from mundane families, highly classist society where old, rich families play with entirely different rules as the rest of the population, a justice system that is rigid and has old, obsolete laws and struggles to recognize the rights of some groups of the population (vampires and lycans.) It’s easy to either make, or not make, plenty of analogies to real life societal issues. It gives rise to a lot of potential conflict between players: family rivalries, business interest rivalries, differences in opinion on whether vampires are a menace to society or an oppressed underclass and so forth.

The authors of the game and world had additional design goals; questioning power structures we see in the real world, broader gender identities, encouraging empathy and solidarity across character (and player!) identities, avoiding dominance by masculine identities, non-antagonistic game mechanics, emphasizing safety and the value of players, and many more. While a lot of it may sound radical — and it is — the game world felt natural. Having famous figures be gender-fluid (and shapeshifters), having female figures of power, and letting people pick their own pronouns did in no way make this world feel weird. To me it successfully demonstrated how natural an inclusive world can feel. In that sense the game universe took several steps towards a utopia of sorts, or a desired state of society.

On the other side of the coin, there were several players with alternative gender identities or disabilities who mentioned after the game how amazing the experience was; having people trust them with someone’s safety despite their physical limitations, being able to trust others, feeling included and welcomed. This was not something introduced in speeches or instructions; the behaviors of the players in these issues were inherent and fostered by the framework of the game and the world. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but as a social experiment it appeared quite successful in balance.

Wait… What Do You Actually Do?

There is no central storyteller or narrator. There isn’t even a central story or plot. The game started with workshops, introducing basic concepts of wizard spell duels — the caster verbalizes the spell, which is useful both for dramatic impact, giving an excuse for exaggerated body language and whipping one’s wand around, as well as giving the target an idea of what the spell is supposed to do; the target then decides what happens.

For example, wizard Alice goes, “Ha! Let’s see you be so smug with your hair on fire! Ignitus!” and wizard Bob either ducks, blocks, or begins to run around with his hair on fire, whatever he feels makes for the best story.

There was a safe-word mechanism for lowering the intensity of a scene without stopping it (“Largo”), a mechanism for stopping a scene if there’s a real life issue or the intensity is too much (“Cut!”), an unobtrusive hand signal to check whether another player is OK, and an exercise for using “they” as a pronoun. The workshops actually ran everyone through the various tasks, and while the mechanisms were very simple, once you actually do something once or twice, it fits into your routine completely differently than it would after just listening to a lecture. The workshops also moved towards moving people more and more into their characters; starting with basic mechanics, and getting more into game and personalities as they went on.

There were some inherent activities: you went to class, did homework, went to club meetings and events, to breakfast, lunch and dinner and so forth. There were events for the houses; planning for the selection of first years, open houses, initiation, mentee/mentor assignments to mention a few. The professors could assign homework, for example to use a healing technique on another student, or duel three other students. Some of the faculty could ask students to do tasks for them, or mention mysteries. There were some centrally arranged things; if you went through the forbidden woods at night, chances are you’d encounter something, or a chupacabra would get loose, and so forth. None of these were “central” plots; if you were there, you were there, and could elect to engage in them.

There was a central overarching storyline about an evil wizard having rumored to have escaped and heading to campus for revenge, and corruption among the school leadership etc. This played out in a few big scenes at major events, but again it merely set the stage for people to play on as they pleased. You weren’t expected to necessarily interact with the main events directly.

Aside from the above, players made their own plots. They could be romantic plots to get lovebirds together, or keep them apart, or deal with breakups; they could be enacting rivalries; pranking other players, faculty or houses; casting curses in revenge; engaging in illicit dealings of potions; stealing things; trying to prove that chupacabra are sentient and should be protected and so forth. These plots frequently would involve others and cascade on in complex ways.

Some players had set up text roleplay before the event, and had already worked on common history. For example, an amoral hunter left another character badly heartbroken and engaged in illegal trading of potion ingredients to someone who wanted to make a potion to forcibly “cure” or kill any lycans; they did favors to other characters, and were a loyal member of one of the houses. Before long, people discovered the connections, and were left with hard choices — whether to punish the hunter’s crimes, or value house loyalty. Would the heartbroken former lover turn in the hunter for their illegal actions, blackmail them, or do something else to get revenge? It was really fascinating how such basic ingredients resulted in a very tight web of connections and crisscrossing plots, most of which emerged organically from the histories, motivations and interactions of the characters without any kind of central planning.

Harrison Greene had described these kinds of larps as (paraphrasing) “take every Shakespeare character, put them in a room, close the door, and see what happens.” That might give you an idea of the kinds of dynamics that can emerge without any external plotting.

Bleeding All Over the Place!

One of the concepts that is being academically researched and has been formalized in the context of Nordic larps is bleed, the way the emotions of the player and the character cross the alibi or temenos boundaries. While it’s something that happens in most any make-believe to some extent, it’s particularly strong in immersive larps, and indeed may be the goal of players. They want to feel what their character feels.

The workshops and briefing mentioned bleed and dealing with it. The debriefing gave players ways to mitigate it. Many experienced players thought they were familiar with it. They were wrong. Whether at game, or during the following week, it became obvious just how intense the experience had been. Luckily this highlighted another aspect of the game, and that was the amazing camaraderie and support among the players, and the way they supported each other via hangouts and chats and online discussions afterwards.

This is where explaining the allure and impact of the game becomes exceedingly difficult. You put on robes and pretend to be a wizard student for a couple of days, go to wizard prom, and go home. And yet people would break down in tears days later, and either desperately clung to their characters, or had to find mechanisms to compartmentalize and put the characters away into boxes. People with characters who fell in love had to deal with disentangling those emotions from those of their players. My advice to anyone, no matter their background, wanting to get involved in this form of larp is to be very aware of the intensity of emotions, and to plan, even if it requires breaking character and steering events, to end the game on a good note. And yet, to a person, everyone felt that this was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had, and were hungry for more.


I’ve thought a fair bit about what the attraction and draw of this kind of make-believe and play is. I suspect much of this varies from person to person, and even from event to event. For me, the primary attraction is escapism, defined by Wikipedia as “…mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an ‘escape’ or dissociation from the perceived unpleasant, boring, arduous, scary, or banal aspects of daily life. It can also be used as a term to define the actions people take to help relieve persisting feelings of depression or general sadness.”

During Magischola, I was in character. I did not check Facebook or work email; there was a fairly complete isolation from the normal, outside world. I spent several days completely free of the worries of paying the mortgage, datacenter moves, project deadlines, social obligations and mistakes and things like that. In character there certainly were happy things and sad things, but in many ways they are safe, and simplified. Your character meets another character, and you work together towards a goal or against each other — it doesn’t matter which political party their player supports, or which sports team they root for. Three days in this environment was more effective in wiping away work stress than two weeks on a beach.

There is constant discovery — new magic, new creatures, new people and new mysteries. Not only that, but you can feel the character you are inhabiting learn more about themselves and grow; you get to start from a nearly blank slate, and engage in self-discovery and experimentation in how to solve moral and social challenges.

In Summary

The event wasn’t perfect. Many things went wrong technically (although I only found out about many of these after the fact), and neither I nor several other players quite knew how to get the most out of it, but for a first run it was a spectacular success; really, it was a success even absent any such qualifiers. In particular, the organizers (Maury Brown and Ben Morrow) really care deeply about the experience players have, and are promptly tweaking things that could be better, both technically, world-wise, and in the game culture. Knowing that the feelings and opinions and experiences of the players mattered is a surprisingly powerful detail.

The event, and the world, for all its apparent simplicity was very, very cleverly crafted, and resulted in an utterly amazing experience. I made many new friends, which is unusual for me. This is, without a doubt, the kind of game I want to play in. If this is something you have an interest in, and you ever have a chance to attend one of these games, please do. It’ll be amazing.

Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows

I encountered Leigh Bardugo and the first part in her trilogy by being invited to a YA book club meeting to discuss the book.

During my teenage and young adult years I read a lot, thanks to the excellent Finnish library system, although I never really had the concept of YA as a separate genre. Perhaps it’s because there are so many memories from my formative years, or perhaps because there are many tremendously strong fantasy and urban fantasy authors that publish under the YA pigeon-hole that I quite often find myself reading works from that section of the bookstore.
This book club is being sponsored by Inkwood, a local brick-and-mortar (or rather restored bungalow) independent bookstore, and I actually ventured there to purchase the hardcover version of the book. It’s been quite a while since my last visit to a bookstore; much like libraries, they’re magical and wonderful places. The visit left me very conflicted. I absolutely do want to preserve the magic there is in these places, but having to drive forty minutes through rush hour to a store with limited hours to purchase a book at more than twice the cost of a Kindle version… I wish I knew how to make the economics work.

In the case of Six of Crows, though, the hardcover is worth the price. The book is wonderful. I was going to make some comment about separating the physical form of the book from the content, but then I realized doing so really wouldn’t be fair; the presence and quality of the book in my hands absolutely contributed to the reading experience.
The book itself was good. Not great, but good. The basic structure is a number of street urchins from a fictitious medieval world banding together for a goal that promises them all which ever kind of dreams or hopes they have. There are strong influences from medieval Dutch, Scandinavian and Venetian trade empires, coming together in a fairly distinctive and original setting.
The story is told in chronological order with interspersed chapters of the history of the various characters. The prose is good, and the pacing is solid. Unfortunately, once again, something triggered my feeling that the book was too carefully planned and put together. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as we find out things in a nice, measured, balanced way, the characters complement each other and work well, but something just feels too artificial and missing an organic soul.
Nevertheless, there’s enough depth in the plot and the web of relationships, a lot of exploration of self-worth, finding oneself and balancing of conflicting priorities.
As befits a set of youth trying to eke out a living in a ruthless world, things aren’t nice. The characters all have various traumatic pasts, and even the actual story gets pretty grisly at times. YA certainly doesn’t mean PG-rated by any means.
I completely missed the mention of it being a part of a trilogy, so the ending that leaves a fair bit of things hanging was a tad jarring; be aware that getting into this series likely requires commitment of three books.
Four out of five, with a bonus half point for the gorgeous presentation.

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3)

This contains some possible spoilers of the previous two books.

Brief recap of the concept and some of the tech assumptions of Leckie’s world: AI exists, humans can have implants that allow them to communicate with, or be completely controlled by said AI, war ships have a number of such humans, called ancillaries, at their disposal; they’re individual intelligences and consciousnesses, but synchronized as parts of a greater whole. There’s an interstellar empire that is keeping peace by conquest, ruled by one apparently immortal empress. A few alien races exist, but they’re alien, and generally keep to themselves as do the humans.

The protagonist is one of these ancillaries; after the destruction of her ship, her part of the AI is all that remained. While this book plot-wise can largely stand on its own, it really should be read as part of the trilogy, since the protagonist’s nature and relation to her crew are otherwise left less explored than it should. Notably, the use of gendered pronouns when referring to an artificial intelligence was intentionally muddied in the first book; by this third volume any assumptions of the accuracy, relevance or meaning of sex or gender should not be taken at face value.

The plot continues from where it left off at the second book — the empress consists of multiple clones, and they’ve unsychronized and are now waging war amongst themselves. The premise is dicy: arguably the current system of rule isn’t perfect and might makes right instinctively doesn’t sit well with the reader or the protagonist, but even beyond that all the loyal subjects of the empire are asked to pick a side, even when they just want to be loyal to the concept or system, and since all the sides are supposedly the legitimate authority, the choice is impossible.

We learn more about the Presger aliens, and this is generally that they are alien. Leckie does a good job at making aliens, their behavior and motives alien.

The themes familiar from the previous works continue here — trying to find the right choice, trying to decide what is just, navigating class and religion and fallible and imperfect people, as well as exploring the nature of the AIs in more depth. Between the three books concepts such as identity, self-determination, end justifying the means, ones responsibility to oneself and others are pretty well examined.

There’s action as well, and the novel works well as space opera, but the added aspects really elevate the entire series a notch above even good space opera.

The pacing is good, the prose competent — while it might not be most elaborate writing on its surface, there’s a clear level of consideration that has gone into it.

Four out of five

While this “concludes the trilogy,” there’s room for future exploration of the universe, and I’d definitely welcome it.

Tanya Huff: An Ancient Peace (The Confederation of Valor #6, Peacekeeper #1)

While this novel is oddly part of two series, continuing the adventures of gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines, it can stand on its own as well, as the setting is pretty familiar science fiction trope territory.

The genre is space opera on an individual scale; the action isn’t space fleet battles as much as boots on the ground in the dirt. It’s feel-good pop-corn reading; the eminently competent sergeant Kerr is thrown into any number of dicy situations and manages to get her and most of her people back out of them, showing integrity and honor and all the romanticized values of a military in the process.

The above shouldn’t be taken to imply this book isn’t good. Ms. Huff continues to deliver the tropy feel-good romp with great skill. Everything is just a notch above what one would expect: the characters, while by no means deep, are interesting and sympathetic and different; the world building feels natural; while the protagonist manages to overcome the plot challenges elegantly enough to satisfy Hollywood sensibilities, a lot of politics and morality and big picture setting somehow still manages to come through.

The basic plot: A group of grave robbers are about to unearth ancient weapons from one of the Elder Races, and it’s up to Kerr and her no-longer-marines company to stop them before their actions can cause another war. The plot pacing isn’t perfect; a lot of the book is a dungeon crawl with one group following the other, and consequently covering some of the same ground. While this allows for comparison between the motivations of the two groups it still felt a bit annoying. The story follows multiple viewpoints as needed in chronological order, and it flows very naturally. The prose is good, albeit not extraordinary.

In summary — if you want a competent, tough-but-good idealized version of a space marine leading a motley crew of races on a romp for justice, this is a book for you.

Three and a half out of five.

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires 1)

Jim Butcher does steampunk.

Oh, I’m supposed to say more? Fine.

Mr. Butcher can produce great, fun stories that are a step above the average disposable urban fantasy (in the case of the Dresden Files), although his foray into actual fantasy (Codex Alera) appealed to me considerably less.

In this case the setting is interesting — humanity lives in huge spires, the surface of the planet is too dangerous to venture on, ether technology and power allows for all kinds of things, including flight, and trade, war and privacy happens via ships powered by crystals and ethersilk sails, and iron and steel rot quickly and are an unreliable basis for machines, and cats can talk. There is a tremendous amount of mystery about why things are the way they are, and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be a major plot point moving forward.

The book introduces a cast of characters from various backgrounds and interests, and there isn’t a clear single protagonist. The plot, instead, begins to craft a team of the various characters, and lies a groundwork for higher adventure.
While the novel is clearly a way to set up for another series, it stands well enough on its own, and doesn’t feel like it sacrifices too much for being a pilot episode.
The characters and setting are good, and I found myself wishing I could see the visuals Butcher may have had in mind for many of them. The absolutely biggest shortcoming of the work is unfortunately the prose. It sounds like the first attempt to speak at a steampunk RPG or convention, mixing overly polite and proper archaic English with modern enough concepts and an alien setting. He doesn’t take it nearly as much over the top as some others (Gail Carriger, I’m looking at you), and to me it just always felt annoyingly tentative. I either got used to it or he figured out the style towards the end of the book, though.
The plot, once it starts rolling, is heavy on action, and here Butcher has struck a much better balance between describing cinematic battles and not getting carried away than he did with Codex Alera, and I found myself enjoying the fights, which is not too often the case. Of course, perhaps as part of the genre, the outcomes are about as predictable as anything on primetime TV.
In summary, I enjoyed the romp a lot more than I really ought to have, and will be keeping an eye out for the next installment.
Three out of five, at least half of those being for just sheer fun.

Holly Black: Red Glove and Black Heart (Curse Workers 2 & 3)

Since I quite liked Holly Black’s first Curse Workers installment, I went ahead and read the rest of the series. All the things I liked about the first volume continued to work on the next two, and if anything they got better. The magic and abilities are present in the world, but mostly in the way it shapes society and interactions, and are very rarely actually used.

The clear strength of the series are the relationships between its characters. A mother who means well but is dramatically inconsiderate, siblings who have their own motivations, and friends who have their own problems.

It’s very refreshing to not have simple Mary Sue / Marty Stu settings, or unnecessarily dramatized relationships. The protagonist’s friends will be unhappy if they’re not treated well, but nobody will cut off ties for a single slight of some kind. Everyone has their own motivations, and occasionally they’re unrelated, occasionally they coincide with those of others, and occasionally they’re in conflict, and the character will have to make value judgments, just like real life.

The pacing is generally good; the books aren’t the most action-packed thing out there, but they easily held my interest. The love interest plot is devilishly complicated and clever in its set-up, and as some other situations, the protagonist is faced with multiple choices, all seemingly less than ideal.

The first book is readable on its own, the next two do better as part of the full trifecta.

Four and a half out of five for the whole enchilada.

Holly Black: White Cat (Curse Workers 1)

I’ve had a few false starts with books recently, where the book I started just doesn’t manage to keep my interest even to the point of wanting to finish it. It was therefore a welcome change to pick up Black’s White Cat and get promptly sucked into the story.

The setting is mild urban fantasy / alternative history. Magic exists, but very few people can do it, and the magic is hexes where witches (or curse workers) can shift someone’s emotions, dreams, etc.

I’m not sure whether this book falls under the umbrella of Young Adult literature, but I don’t think it matters; the characters, their relationships and problems are just as applicable to YA readers as to anyone else.

It’s those relationships and characters that make this book so great. Everything feels new and original and fantastic and not like just another fast food version of a literary adventure. Things are complicated, the way they can be in real life, everyone’s flawed, and there is not really black and white.

The pacing isn’t perfect: the story spends some time with us getting to know the protagonist and the demons haunting him, but once the plot kicks into gear it doesn’t let go and I finished the book in a single sitting.

This isn’t popcorn reading. There will be complicated emotions and bittersweetness, but it’s well worth it. This is the kind of book that makes me happy for having read it, and wanting me to recommend it heartily.

Holly Black is often mentioned in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, and as much as I hate to go that route, I think this novel clearly shows why.

Four and a half out of five.

M. L. Brennan: Tainted Blood (Generation V)

I started to read this series because of the kitsune deuteragonist, and I had some quibbles with the first two books. Many of them are still present in this third installment: the main character is annoyingly dim-witted and oblivious at times and the plot, while well paced and reasonably complex etc. seems like it came from a “how to write a good noir PI story in 57 easy steps,” just somehow a bit too planned and clinical. I couldn’t begin to say why a properly executed and planned plot bothers me.

What the third installment has going for it, in addition to the kitsune and the decent murder mystery, is the vampire aspect. The way the novel addresses the practicalities of its vampires, and the protagonist has to confront what he is and what he will have to do to survive was wonderfully refreshing.
There is some repetitive introductory material, presumably for people who want to start from the third installment. Otherwise, the storytelling has improved a bit from the previous two installments, and the book is fine pop-corn reading. Sufficiently so that I actually am about to buy the next installment.
Three and a half out of five, with an extra fox star.

M.L. Brennan: Generation V (Generation V)

I started to read M. L. Brennan’s urban fantasy series because of a post TOR made regarding a major kitsune character.

The basic premise is pretty usual fare; there are vampires, kitsune, witches, sidhe and other legendary/supernatural creatures. The main character is a fresh vampire trying to survive as a minimum-wage barista with a film degree. He ends up with a competent, beautiful, and tricksy kitsune bodyguard.

The bad: the author is trying to sound authoritative about things they don’t really know, like firearms. The main character is, on purpose, a wet noodle; judging by the way the second book is going, this is so character growth can happen. Regardless, it rubbed me the wrong way. The worse feature is that he’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and things that are clearly telegraphed to the reader as well as other characters completely go past him and make me want to slap some sense into him.

The OK: the plot is competent; in some ways too competent. Somehow it seems like a carefully crafted construct, with all the necessary conflicts and expositional components rather than an organic story. The cast of characters is of reasonable size has promise. The prose is competent, with a smattering of unusual words thrown in.

The good: So far, the kitsune are awesome. I’m not convinced that he author is particularly knowledgeable about Japanese culture or mythology, and the major character is pure fan service, but even so the trickster nature of the kitsune comes through wonderfully. The book reads well, and is very engaging popcorn reading.

Three out of five, with an extra star for foxes.