Cover Image: Lessons in Birdwatching

Lessons in Birdwatching

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I fought with Lessons In Birdwatching, not all its own fault admittedly. My first attempt I got distracted and lost the train of things about a third of the way through. The second time I finished it but there was quite a lot of reading through adversity going on. Lessons In Birdwatching is hard fantasy sci-fi, in as much as its set on a future planet, with an alien people interacting with what may be human ambassadors. The book has to pack a lot into its world-building, and plays a relatively light touch, hoping we will pick things up as we witness the conflict. Basically a survey group is embedded in a semi-feudal indigenous society with very complex military class and castes. The group have resorted to drugs and group sex to entertain themselves and are thoroughly unprepared when a murder happens and they slowly get drawn into it.

The blurbs suggest Dune and Ninefox Gambit as touchstones here, and there is certainly that kind of world-building density. But I never grabbed a character or concept to latch on to properly, and found myself re-reading passages to try and work out what had happened. It does come together in the last third, the apocalyptic threat is made real and there is a massive ramp up from what seemed to be almost a chamber piece about bored researchers at the start. But it never really grabbed me, which might be me, but I think is partially it.

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2.5 stars

dnf @ 28%

I was INCREDIBLY excited for this novel, but alas, it did not work for me. The way the description was worded, I was expecting a tense political spec fic novel, something like a slightly toned-down [author:Arkady Martine|13803582] novel. However, while the tone of the novel isn't light by any means, it didn't give me that emotional punch I was looking for. I had a really hard time telling the characters apart, and I didn't connect emotionally with them through the entire time I was reading. Plus, I just couldn't get interested in what was happening. The writing wasn't bad, but it was certainly not for me either. I'll likely check out more from this author in the future, since I don't want to write them off by any means, but this novel really didn't work for me.

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This book was hard to read and harder to review. With multiple point of views where the dialogues seem very current like and not a post-Earth far away distant alien planet. I am surprised its the language that constantly threw me off than anything in this book. Even with a lot of references to modern day communism and progressive left politics, it was lacking in characters who I could follow through the very end. I just didn't care for the evil Ming or the questionable other characters as well.

However, the world building here is pretty spectacular. As plot progresses, the world also expands and evolves introducing intricacies of the society, science and the universe that has come to be.

Thanks to Angry Robot and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Honestly, for a first novel, this is really solid work. There is a LOT going on, and it aims high (comparisons to Dune, Memory Called Empire, and Ninefox Gambit in the marketing that it broadly earns), and of course there's time/reality warping, drugs, and a disease that may or may not have to do with gods that is infecting a major part of the population. Watson does broadly drop us in media res with a bunch of grad students, and she conveys the action of what happens incredibly well. It's a super fun moral cesspit, there's erotic grotesquerie, and honestly, I'm at least interested in whatever Watson does next. Honestly, might come back to this for another read.

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Unfortunately I struggled with this book. I'm no stranger to "high sci-fi" but I found the writing style nigh-impenetrable and extremely difficult to parse. The author is clearly a capable writer but I just couldn't connect with any of the characters nor find much motivation to be invested in their situation. The dark foreboding, sense of dread and horror elements were difficult to read if you're not into that genre and I'd definitely recommend reading a sample before purchasing this book, simply because of this and the writing itself being a little left-of-center.

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I'm long overdue a review of Lessons in Birdwatching by Honey Watson - this disturbing sci-fi has plenty of strange charm as a group of future leaders find themselves embroiled in conspiracies on the planet they are studying on behalf of their empire. Unfortunately it's a hard book to recommend, as the punchy narrative leaves a lot unsaid, and builds to an unsatisfying conclusion. There's also no clear protagonist, and certain scenes (featuring the consumption of something that should not be consumed) made me feel almost physically ill. I'll be looking on with interest at the author's future career as she proves herself competent at building a fascinating world, interesting characters and has a strong writing style.

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Lessons in Birdwatching
Honey Watson

I'm a bit disappointed with this book, it wasn't what I was expecting at all.

The pacing was quite slow and the world building had a lot of info dumps, which made it hard to keep track of the details.

The characters weren't likeable but that was done on purpose.

Although this is a sci-fi book, there were elements of horror weaved throughout.

I really didn't like the way the Tama were treated. They were abused (mentally and sexually), tortured etc. There were even scenes with cannibalism so I'd recommend checking out the TWs/CWs for this book.

Unfortunately this book just wasn't for me.

*Thank you to @Netgalley and the publishers for providing this ARC. This is my own opinion and an honest review, which I am leaving voluntarily*

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I don't know what to expect, maybe the reference to Dune mislead me or may I expected something funny.
Or simply I read at the wrong moment and it's not my cup of tea now.
I will try again but it didn't work for me now
Many thanks to the publisher for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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Lessons in Birdwatching take you on an exhilarating journey to the planet Apech, where a time-distorting illness has wreaked havoc. Among the visitors are Wilhelmina Ming and her four elite peers from the Crysthian Empire. However, their research post turns into a nightmare as they bear witness to horrifying acts of brutality that defy all logic. Struggling to cope with the trauma, they turn to unconventional means of escape, resorting to psychedelic antidepressants and group activities.

After a particularly distressing night that follows a gruesome execution, they awake to a chilling sight – an impaled corpse hanging ominously outside their residence. This horrifying warning sets off a chain of events that forces the envoys into a dark and dangerous investigation. They soon uncover a tangled web of collusion and conspiracy within their diplomatic corps, throwing them into the heart of a bloody civil war.

As the death toll rises and violence engulfs the surface, a deranged fanatic emerges, threatening the very foundation of their existence. This unhinged individual seeks to awaken a forgotten god and unleash its temporal virus upon Apech, posing an existential threat to everyone on the planet.

Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, Wilhelmina and her peers must confront their deepest fears and insecurities. Their bonds of friendship and trust are put to the test as they navigate the treacherous landscape, seeking the truth and striving to stop the impending catastrophe.

Honey Watson masterfully weaves a tale of suspense, intrigue, and self-discovery. The narrative delves into the complexities of human emotions and the lengths people will go to survive in a world fraught with danger and uncertainty. As they face the consequences of their choices, the characters learn profound lessons about resilience, sacrifice, and the power of unity.

With a vividly depicted world and an engaging plot, this novel captivates readers with its suspenseful twists and turns. "Lessons in Birdwatching" is a thought-provoking and thrilling exploration of the human spirit and the indomitable will to fight for a better future, no matter the odds.

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Lessons In Birdwatching is a strange novel, and one I’d recommend to experienced sci-fi readers who like elements of horror and twisted dark humour in their SFF. Set on a planet called Apech, who would like to join the omnipresent Crysth empire. 5 top students from various backgrounds (some military, some research) are assigned to the Year Abroad From Hell, to hone their skills and really test what ‘the best new talent’ is made of. It doesn’t take long for their position to be put in danger though, as squabbles between rival Apechi factions and the Crysth embassy threatens to catch our protagonists in the crossfire.
In complete honesty, I found this book quite tricky to get into in the beginning. The worldbuilding was certainly rapid-fire, and I spent a good chunk of time near the start trying to get all the characters, races, planets and empires straight in my head. I think the book would have benefitted from either a slower introduction to guide the reader through the new setting, or a glossary at the back for reference purposes (I’m a sucker for a good glossary!).
As odd as the comparison may be, the narrative from the newcomers to the planet feels quite reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While is the setting is very different, I love any novel where characters channel their inner Bernard Marx from BNW, and start to question the customs and lifestyle of the society they live in.
Where I think this book really excelled is demonstrating how easily people (and in this case civilizations) can misunderstand each other. The Apechi people frequently get visions of the near future, and start acting in pre-emptive ways, or answering the Crysthian’s questions before they’ve been asked. It becomes clear early on that there are customs and etiquette surrounding these visions that the lead characters don’t truly understand. I thought the early chapter set in a courthouse explored this theme particularly well, and is where the book really started to pick up for me after a tricky opening. I extend my thanks to Angry Robot and to NetGalley for an advance reading copy of Lessons In Birdwatching in exchange for an honest review.

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People were surprised that I wanted to read this because birds. But I didn't think this would be a bird book, so I went for it. And good news, it is not a bird book! Bad news is, that didn't really help with me liking it, so. Now, it wasn't bad bad, but it just never fully clicked for me, so I will do a likes-dislikes thing because I love those. Can I also say, this could definitely all just be me not jibing with the book? Because that could be it too! Read on!

What I Enjoyed:

►It is located in a post-Earth, far flung planet. Idk anything about said planet (see below, I assume) but it's cool that there are multiple species trying to live together in harmony. Especially considering that we all know how well humans do that. (I also enjoyed that the author certainly acknowledged this fact!)

►I did quite enjoy some of the secondary characters and was invested in their fates. Now, I did not feel the same about the "main" character (I use that loosely since there are quite a few characters' viewpoints that are offered, which is good because if you're anything like me, you don't want to hang out in Ming's head the whole book), but the secondary characters were more... tolerable? Multifaceted? Sure let's go with that. Also, they were kind of funny at times, which helped.

What I Struggled With:

►I loathed Ming. In fairness, I think we are supposed to loathe her? But it's hard to read a book where the main character just gets to be crappy and that is... kind of the point? Like they're all just willing to continue being awful no matter the consequences, and to me that seems short sighted to the point of being unbelievable, I guess. But she, and most of the people aside from a few, are just next level unlikable, so I had a hard time caring about what happened to them.

►I was confused at times. I really don't love being super lost in a book. I don't mean in the way that I don't know what is going to happen next, that is fun! But the feeling of just simply not understanding is frustrating for me. Some people are cool with it, so if that's you, ignore me! But yeah, I didn't have a good grasp on which group was which, who was on which side, and if anyone was any good or if it was just "which bad guy is going to come away victorious?". There were people being introduced, but I didn't have the faintest clue as to how or where they fit into the story, and in fairness, I eventually just stopped trying to figure it out because they all sucked anyway. And I also didn't fully understand the world building, either, and why certain groups ended up on certain planets, other than the general concept of trying to take over whatever they want whenever they want.

►The way they treated the tama was bad-bad. And look, I get that it is supposed to be bad, and I have read some downright horrifying things in my day, but usually there is some kind of... retribution? Consequence? But no, here it is just fine to assault the feeble-minded, use them for whatever, and then get rid of them. I just wanted some justice, any justice, but alas.

►The synopsis claimed it was comic but... I just didn't get too much in the way of comedy, frankly. They nailed the dark bit at least. At no point did I think it was dark humor, though, just... bleak darkness. And that is a very different thing.

►I felt underwhelmed by the ending. I could not figure out if we even found out all the fates of the characters, but by that point I had mostly given up caring, so. I just had a very overwhelming feeling of "wait so that was it?", and simply did not feel satisfied by the conclusion. I also didn't feel particularly mad at that point either, in fairness.

Bottom Line: I so wanted to love this one, especially since the whole bird thing didn't even come into play. But alas, it just didn't hit the mark for me.

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Unfortunately, I never quite clicked with this book. I do think it will find an audience with other readers, but it ended up not being for me.

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This is the best new science fiction I’ve read in a long time. It’s very original, wildly imaginative, packed with interesting ideas and conjures a universe that is both visceral and intriguing.
Preconceptions of traditional character motivations and behaviors are tossed asunder as we are drawn through this dense narrative. There’s humor as well as menace lurking in the twisted urban landscapes of Apech.
I hope this is the first installment of this story as there seems to be much more mileage in these characters and the world that Watson has conceived.

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Oof. I loved the synopsis for this--the description sounded super cool and I have had a lot of fun with other Angry Robot titles, but this just wasn't it. The way it was written made this really hard to get through; the world-building wasn't good; the shifting tenses and choppy writing could have used more editing. I'm conflicted on this because the idea was really cool but the writing and way the sentences were crafted took me out of the story so much. I think with another round of editing and polishing, this could be really great.

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While the ideas and premise are intriguing, the style and quality of writing made this book nigh-unreadable, at least for me. Sentences were short and choppy and often just straightforward descriptions (telling rather than showing). Worldbuilding aspects were explained in asides rather than introduced naturally. The tense constantly shifted from past to present. Overall, it just seemed to be a case of a writer with vibrant and probably good ideas in desperate need of aggressive editing. Sometimes I think my issues with a book are that it's just not my style of writing; in this case, I think that the writing is objectively a bit unpolished and perhaps a bit immature. If you can get through that in order to enjoy the characters and plot, awesome for you, but to compare this to Dune, A Memory Called Empire, and Ninefox Gambit is incredibly disingenuous; the crafting of those books (or at least the latter two - Dune has its own issues) is clearly on a different level.

I congratulate the author on writing and publishing a book and wish them luck in perhaps polishing the writing a little bit more so that the story can shine; as it is, I can't get past the writing to even try to enjoy the story.

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If dystopian science fiction full of characters who are not good people is your jam, I think you'll enjoy this book.

I just reviewed Lessons in Birdwatching by Honey Watson. #LessonsinBirdwatching #NetGalley

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I really struggled with this book, to the point where I am not really sure what to say about it. The style and what it’s trying to do makes it a hard read for me, rather than something I looked forward to. I would say if you’re curious about this book to give a sample a try first, or read a few pages to know what to expect. In a certain mood I could’ve like this more, but it’s just not hitting what I enjoy right now.

Note: arc provided by the publisher via netgalley in exchange for honest review

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I generally did not enjoy Lessons in Birdwatching, though I don’t think enjoyment is its goal. The book seems intended to provoke strong emotion, largely negative. The principal character, Ming, is manipulative, sadistic, owner hungry, and evil. Other viewpoint characters are merely generally dislikable, though all but Peter remained pretty opaque. The setting is a bizarre and distasteful world plagued by disease and quirky “magic” which makes most of the residents come off as remote and alien, or in the case of the diseased Tama, as helpless victims. Though sometimes the natives act in very comprehensible fashion, which seemed inconsistent. Ultimately, the violene, gore, and sadism was too much for me.

More off-putting for me was the narrative voice, which is often vague and sometimes weirdly intrusive. Tenses shift, pronouns are used awkwardly so one needs to unravel paragraphs to differentiate character, and the omnipotent narrator directly inserts its voice to address the reader. The language is sometimes baroque, which I normally like, but not here. Moreover, pacing is off. The first third is very slow and uninformative. Pacing picks up after that and propels the book to its finish.

3 stars for the last two thirds of the book, which displays energy and drive. But just not the book for me. Give me China Miéville for complex and baroque any time.

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It took me a few days to write this review because I was still mulling this book over. Watson is a skilled writer with a vivid imagination, but ultimately this one didn’t work for me. Lessons in Birdwatching follows a group of students from the Crysthian Empire during their time on Apech, a planet that wants to join the empire and whose culture and customs are almost totally incomprehensible to the Crysthians. The citizens of Apech are afflicted with an illness that can affect their perception of time and sometimes leaves people as tama, nearly mindless shells of their former selves who do menial tasks and are treated with contempt.

This is a book that rewards careful reading. Watson’s worldbuilding is layered and very detailed, and she frequently plays with the gap between her omniscient narrator’s knowledge and the knowledge of the characters. I really enjoyed how immersive the world building was and how slow Watson was to reveal what was going on. There are no infodumps here. The plot is heavy on intrigue, deception, and Imperial politics. The political maneuvering was well done and there were several reveals of information that surprised me.

Another thing I liked: the characters in the novel are well-drawn, with convincing motivations. I want to be clear—almost no one (maybe even no one) is very likable here. Wilhelmina Ming, the main character, is evil. She seems to have no affection for others, no moral compunctions, and is a sadist. Having unlikeable characters, even unlikeable main characters, is never a dealbreaker for me, but this isn’t the kind of novel where evil gets punished. Also, Lessons in Birdwatching is very, very heavy on the gore and body horror, so be aware going in that it’s going to get gross.

So why didn’t I like it, given that Watson is such an accomplished writer on a technical level? Once I finished the novel I wasn’t sure exactly what Watson was trying to do here. The ending left me with an empty feeling and a kind of shrug. It wasn’t a story where we follow the smart, evil character to their eventual triumph and where the pleasure is watching them out scheme everyone else. It wasn’t a conventional horror/everyone dies ending either. The publisher’s blurb mentions nihilism and careening towards annihilation, which might be the best way to sum it up. Maybe the novel is supposed to be a paean to nihilism?

There were a few other things that were really dealbreakers for me. Spoilers ahead.

<spoiler> One of the things that really bothered me was Ming’s interactions with the tama. We understand that the tama have the mental capacity of someone with an intellectual disability or a very small child, and watching Ming torture and have sex with the tama was disturbing and also pretty unnecessary. There is also a scene where she cannibalizes a diseased tama while he is still (mostly) alive, and that was also just too much gore for me (or should I say, too much vore?). I know Ming is evil—I didn’t want to read about her sexual torture or cannibalism in that much detail. The book’s final scenes also contain a scene between Ming and a male character where she seems to be especially degraded. Thematically, it felt out of place to me at the novel’s ending and it muddied some of the themes of the ending to the point that I wasn’t sure what we are supposed to feel at the end. Is Ming triumphant or not? </spoiler>

As I said above, Watson is an accomplished writer. I won’t say I am sorry I read this, but I wouldn’t read it again. I would, however, give her work another try for the plot machinations and world building alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to NetGalley for an early copy of this book.

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The book gets off on a slow start with some narrative distance, and banter that is entertaining in bursts but doesn't quite ground this reader in the characters. Still, it picks up around page 80 or so, when the pace quickens, the reader gets drawn into the mystery, and the book finds more of its voice. All in, it's great worldbuilding.

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