October 2018 Reviews

I was thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year, but a combination of busy start to November, no new ideas, and getting back into my long-neglected novel have shot that. To make up for that, I’m going to try and read as many books as I can this month so I can give my readers a lot of reviews.

Until then though, here are three very different, and very interesting novels I read in October.

 

SemiosisSemiosis

By Sue Burke

Published February 2018

Score: 9.5/10

 

Semiosis is the debut novel by Sue Burke, and wow, what a debut. Of course, I have a thing for sentient plants, so this was always going to be a hit for me. Though even without the fun I always get reading about plants or machines thinking, this book still has so much to dig into. Semiosis is colony science fiction at its best.

In Semiosis, we follow the first seven generations of a colony on a planet called Pax. The original colonists founded Pax with the intention to create a society based on pacifism and harmony with nature. This didn’t really go as well as planned, and the following generations struggle to uphold these ideals as they encounter signs of other sentient life, including a glass city and a grove of strange rainbow bamboo.

The relationship the humans have with the native plant life is fascinating. There are many cases in real life Earth nature where plants control animals. Some of this control can be simple, like plants releasing a scent that attracts predators to deal with offending grazers, or plants shaping their flowers to fit only their desired pollinator. If we want to see even more intricate plant/animal relations, we need to examine the Myrmecophytes (literally ‘ant-trees’) which provide a colony of ants with everything it needs in exchange for services such as pollination, seed dispersal, gathering of nutrients, and defence.

The relationship between the Myrmecophytes and their ants is called mutualism. In biological terms, mutualism is described as two organisms of different species existing in a relationship where each individual fitness benefits the other. In Semiosis, the humans of Pax find themselves becoming the ants to a sentient native plant and as time passes human and plant must establish just what mutualism looks like when both parties are intelligent enough to discuss their situation and long for more from life than just survival. Is mutualism really compatible with human ideas on equality and pacifism? Does being the ants of this relationship mean giving up freedom? And before this discussion can even take place, communication must be established, which given how different humans and plants are is quite an undertaking.

As fascinating as the subject is, there are a few issues with the story. The multi-generational nature of the story means that you don’t spend a lot of time with most of the characters. It also leads to long time jumps, which in turn means some important character and social development happens ‘off-screen’. The story does seem to change direction halfway through, which can also be off-putting. None of these issues took away too much of my enjoyment of the book, but they are things that I can see annoying some readers.

 

Seven Ancient Wonders

(Published as Seven Deadly Wonders in the US)

By Matthew Reilly

Published December 2005

Score: 6.5

 

I don’t dislike this book. When I score things, I think of five as the ‘meh’ point. A six is alright, and I bumped this score up to 6.5 because I did enjoy reading this book. Or at least, most parts. Seven Ancient Wonders is pure tomb-robbing, ancient Egyptian fun, which I liked despite some flaws.

Before we learn anything else about the plot and world of Ancient Wonders, we are introduced to a team of badarse soldiers/tomb raiders with their special little girl as they are dropped into a forgotten Ptolemaic Egyptian mine full of crocodiles and fire and rolling boulders and baddies with guns. One good thing I noticed right away is that Ancient Wonders provides handy maps and diagrams of nearly every new tomb and trap, so it is very easy to follow along with the action. Seven Wonders is a fun action story with cool gadgets and magic, starring Awesome Aussie Jack West Jr. and a hunt for pieces of the magical top of the Great Pyramid.

So, a fun story, but why only a six? Well, the tone of the story made a lot of things forgivable, but the history side of things annoyed me a bit. Saying Alexander the Great conquered the world is a bit of a stretch, and Hatshepsut was not the only woman Pharaoh, which both Reilly and Jack West knew, since they talked about Cleopatra VII. There were also a few other lines that didn’t make sense, and some unbelievable things (like how a 2000+ year old trap that requires a live crocodile falling down a pipe teeth first still works), and a few dumb actions by certain characters, such as a villain making an important MacGuffin accessible by the heroes in order to ‘lure them out’, when the heroes would have no idea if the item was legit until they had already been ‘lured out’.

So, these are all nitpicky problems that didn’t ruin the book for me, but there were enough of them to pull me out of the story. There’s also the fact that this is a long story, over 500 pages. The strength of this book is the intense action scenes, and it can be hard to maintain that moment for such a long story. I thought Reilly pulled it off, but if you are unable to suspend your disbelief, this could be a very long read.

Seven Ancient Wonders was a fun read that I enjoyed, but it’s something you have to try not to think about too hard.

 

The Consuming Fire (Interdependency #2)

By John Scalzi

Narrated by Wil Wheaton

Published October 2018

Score: 8/10

 

I reviewed the first book in Scalzi’s Interdependency series here earlier this year. One of my complaints about The Collapsing Empire was that it felt like a set-up to the rest of the series, but after reading The Consuming Fire I’m not sure how I feel about that comment. Consuming Fire at times felt like it was setting up things, but we got more pay-offs than in Collapsing Empire. In fact, that ending was so satisfying, even if there was a slight ass-pull element to it. I won’t talk too much about the story as a whole, since I summed up the plot of the series pretty well in the last review. I’ll just mention a few highlights, and some disappointments.

First, something I didn’t like; the amount of exposition and repetition. Yes, I know, it’s the second book in a series so there’s going to be some recapping, but everyone brought up the attempted space-shuttle assassination thing way more than necessary. Also, some things were way over-explained.

I did like that the climate change denial parallels were more obvious. I know that message fiction can be a real turn off to some people, but I still think Scalzi avoids bashing us over the head too much with it, whilst still taking a jab at leaders who try to deny, minimise, or use the coming changes for their own benefit.

Scalzi’s humour in this book was great. Scalzi humour relies on a lot of snark, sarcasm, and unexpected profanity, which is a perfect fit for narrator Wil Wheaton. I actually read The Collapsing Empire, so this was my first time experiencing a Scalzi story as an audio book. It was also my first time listening to an audiobook narrated by someone I’ve listened to in other media, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were times when I pictured some characters as Wil Wheaton, but besides that I enjoyed the narration. Made me laugh a lot.

 

Now that that’s done, time to get busy. I’ll see you all next month. Or maybe even earlier.

 

Happy Reading,

Lauren

 

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September Reviews

Alright, a bit of a September/October page, since I wanted to talk about Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy together. And, also because I’ve been pre-occupied. Yeah, I admit it, I failed at a monthly review thing after just one month.

I’ve read a lot of short fiction, but today I’m going to talk about the two novels and two novellas I have read since my last review post. All have been 2018 release, and all I loved a lot.

 

Witchmark36187110

by C.L Polk

Published June 2018

Score: 8.5

I caved into reading this one after seeing it advertised and talked about a lot, and I was not disappointed. I really liked the world and magic system, both of which reminded me of the anime Fullmetal Alchemist with maybe a dash of Harry Potter, except with a more Edwardian England feel. Witchmark takes place in a fictional country called Aeland, which has been fighting a war with Laneer for years. The protagonist Miles is a doctor and a war veteran, who treats other veterans suffering shell-shock. Miles is also a witch. In this world, there is a secret society of witches that control most of what happens in Aeland. These witches are the nobility of the country, and are all inter-related. Witches can be born outside this society, but they are considered incapable of wielding their powers without going mad, and as a result are locked away in witch asylums. Miles was born into the upper class, but ran away at an early age, because this nobility has some pretty messed up practices. Like enslaving the less powerful witches, so they are forced to be magic batteries.

The story itself is a paranormal mystery, where Miles must discover who killed one of his patients, unravel a conspiracy about the war, find out why some of his patients are going crazy and killing their families, and navigate a reunion with his sister and the world he left behind. All the while he is aided by a strange, unnaturally handsome man named Tristan. I’m not usually a big fan of fast romances, but I really enjoyed the one between Miles and Tristan.

I enjoyed everything about this book. Loved the world and characters, there was a lot going on in the plot, but it all came together in the end. This book also examines a lot of big issues, such as war, servitude, and class privilege. This is an amazing first novel.

 

Space Opera36136118

by Catherynne M. Valente

Published April 2018

Score: 9/10

Alright, this was awesome, but it may not be for everyone. The premise of this book is simply ‘Eurovision in space’, with Humanity forced to compete and threatened with annihilation if we lose. As soon as I knew this book was a thing, I knew I had to read it.

As the summery and title may suggest, this is a comedy book. The humour is heavily influenced by Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and even though I liked Hitchhiker, I was a bit weary about Valente’s style as I started the book. I got into it quickly enough. I also liked that even though it was a comedy, there were some hard, very serious truths beneath the surface. The reason humanity is being asked to sing is so the rest of the galaxy can judge whether or not we are sentient and deserving of a place in their community. Throughout the book, a lot of arguments as to why we may deserve to be destroyed are bought up, and the stars of the book, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, encounter a fair bit of racism from their fellow humans, and have their own flaws and regrets to work through.

Another thing that will probably turn a lot of people off this book is that there is not a lot of plot. The first half of the book is mostly worldbuilding, which interested me because Valente has created some really fun aliens, but didn’t pull me into the story. As much as I liked the aliens, I did keep getting a few of them mixed up at times. Once our stars reach the host planet of Space Eurovision though, the plot picks up. I binge read the last quarter of the book, constantly saying ‘just one more chapter’ the whole time. It was so fun, and so crazy. I’ve been telling everyone how fun this book is, and now I’m happy to recommend it to the world.

 

Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy

by Martha Wells

Published August and October 2018

 Score: 8/10 and 9.5/10

I have been in love with the Murderbot Diaries series so far, but I’ll admit I was worried when I started Rogue Protocol. Maybe it’s because I was listening to it directly after Artificial Condition (was listening to it with my partner on a long car trip), but the start of Rogue Protocol just felt so long and repetitive. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe my poor Murderbot was going to become a bad series.

I shouldn’t have panicked. Murderbot found itself on a terraforming station with new humans to protect and some of the toughest enemies it has yet encountered. Rogue Protocol became a thrilling action-packed adventure, that not only had Murderbot be a total badarse, but also forced it to undergo a lot of personal growth. The ending left me totally blown away.

Exit Strategy concludes the novella series, and it is such an amazing conclusion. Murderbot finally meets it’s humans from All Systems Red, and it has it’s final showdown with the evil Greycris company. Exit Strategy is another action-packed and emotional ride, and whilst it wraps up the quartet, it also leaves the door open for the series to continue. Which is good, because a Murderbot novel is in the works.

Whilst reading and listening to the Murderbot series, I often thought how cool it would be as a video game. Fighting and hacking like Murderbot would be fun, and there is a lot of scope for puzzles and stealth missions. But then I realised that a Murderbot game would be mostly escort missions, which are usually the worst. Oh well, it’s still an amazing series. Also the audiobooks narrated by Kevin R. Free are really well done. Can’t wait for the novel.

 

And that’s my September and early October. There was another book I nearly finished, but that deserves it’s own full review. Or to be completely forgotten; either one works. Until then, happy reading.

~Lauren

 

 

 

 

Recent Reads, July-August 2018

There have been so many new books released these past three months, and it seems my reading has been too fast for my reviewing. I think going forward, I might try and do monthly mini reviews.

 

The Revenant Gun36373688

By Yoon Ha Lee

Published June 2018

Score: 10/10

I don’t think I can actually give a review for just The Revenant Gun. It’s the final volume in a trilogy that won me over long ago, and it completed the series perfectly, so 10/10.

The Machineries of Empire trilogy has been a wild ride, and whilst it blew me away, it’s not the easiest series to follow and understand. There is little exposition, the characters all have unusual names, so they can be hard to keep track of, and the technology is pretty far out. In fact, at first I was thinking of it as ‘they invented magic’. But that’s all stuff you’d have to get through in Ninefox Gambit. If you enjoyed book one, you’ll love the whole series.

The Revenant Gun is set many years after the end of Raven Stratagem, and involves all the key players still left in the fight for the Hexarcharte playing their endgames. For millennia, the Hexarchate has relied on human sacrifice and torture to survive, and after the machinations of Cheris, Jedao, and everyone else who has found this system unacceptable, the immortal architect of the Hexarchate, Nirai Kujan, is setting out to take back control. This is a huge climax for the series, and such a wonderful end.

 

35684941The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

By Clint McElroys, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch

Published July 2018

Score: 7.5/10

The Adventure Zone is a hit podcast where three brothers and their father play Dungeons and Dragons. The McElroy’s (Who you might also know from the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me) first campaign, the Balance arc, spanned 69 episodes across three years. It was hilarious, heart-warming, and a hell of a lot of fun. The Adventure Zone; Balance has been a significant part off my life over the past few years, as my partner and I would listen to the latest episodes in nearly every car trip and constantly discuss the show. Ever since hearing a graphic novel adaptation of the show was coming, I’ve been excited.

Now I’ve read it and it is such a good adaptation. The art is fantastic, and there is still plenty of fourth-wall breaking and reminders that the characters are playing a game of D&D. It is an amazing adaptation that captures the feel of the show. The downside though is that this is only an adaptation of the first campaign in the story, Here There Be Gerblins, which I feel is the weakest quest in the story. The campaign was based on the Dungeons and Dragons starter set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelvar, so it has a different feel to the other campaigns, which were designed around Griffin’s Balance storyline. Some names had to be changed due to licensing issues, so Klarg is now G’nash.

This is a fun adaptation, and an excellent start to the series in graphic novel form. I can’t wait for book 2, Murder on the Rockport Limited.  

 

Deep Roots36144841

By Ruthanna Emerys

Published July 2018

Score: 10/10

The Whisperer in Darkness

By H.P. Lovecraft

Published 1931

Score 8/10

Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy is a genius reinvention of Lovecraft’s mythos. Deep Roots is the second novel in the series, which follows Aphra Marsh, Deep One and one of only two survivors of the government raids on Innsmouth at the end of Lovecraft’s A Shadow Over Innsmouth. In the first book of the series, The Winter Tide, Aphra agrees to help the FBI investigate a Soviet spy who may have information on powerful magic, and along the way finds a new family, and reconnects with her people’s elders, who live at the bottom of the ocean.

In Deep Roots, Aphra and her brother Caleb are looking to rebuild Innsmouth by finding long lost relatives. People who have ancestors from the town and may have enough Deep One blood to undergo the metamorphism that will allow them to become aquatic immortals. Or at least to have children that may inherit this ability.

The Marsh’s search leads their group to New York City, were they encounter Francis and her young son Freddy. Unfortunately, Freddy has gone missing, and our heroes find him hanging out with the Outer Ones from The Whisperer in Darkness.

The Whisperer in Darkness was one of Lovecraft’s later stories, and marked a shift towards science fiction. This novella follows Professor Albert Wilmarth as he writes a sceptical article about strange bodies that are sighted after flooding in Vermont. Wilmarth begins a correspondence with Henry Akeley, a local of Vermont who has seen signs of monsters near his isolated house in the hills. Akeley sends Wilmarth a record of a ritual with humans and these monstrous Mi-go chanting to Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, as well as other information that convinces Wilmarth that the monsters are real. As the letters go back and forth, Akeley is convinced that the Mi-go are watching him, and that they wish to silence him. With every letter, Akeley’s situation grows more perilous, until out of the blue he makes peace with the Mi-go, who he now refers to as ‘The Outer Ones’. He explains to Wilmarth that the Outer Ones are travellers who look for people to talk to, and have the technology to allow their friends to travel to far away planets. He assures Wilmarth of the Outer-One’s friendly intentions and invites him for a visit. Wilmarth is excited by the possibility, but he still has a lot of doubts about the Outer One’s intentions.

In Deep Roots, Aphra and the gang have similar misgivings about the Outer Ones, and finding out the actual agenda of these bohemian fungus aliens is vital not just for earning Freddy’s co-operation, but potentially for protecting humankind itself.

Lovecraft saw ‘the other’ as a subject of horror, and his mythos reflects that. Emrys’s genius is that she takes the same mythos and portrays ‘the other’ as a source of strength and opportunity. Deep Roots has so many Lovecraft staples: The Deep Ones of Innsmouth, the Mi-go/Outer Ones, the K’n-yan, a trip to the Dreamlands and a meeting with the Ghouls, another perspective on the Yith, and probably more that I’m not thinking of. And yet despite being all about the most well known works of horror, this book and series feel like a 1950s urban fantasy.

I liked The Winter Tide a lot, but I absolutely love Deep Roots. It seems at the moment there are no more Innsmouth Legacy books in the works, but Emrys hasn’t ruled out a return to Aphra’s world. I hope we do return one day.

 

38608575The Quantum Magician

By Derek Künsken

Published October 2018

Score: 7/10

The Quantum Magician was serialised in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in the Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr, and May/Jun 2018 issues. I started reading this book as soon as I got the Jan/Feb issue, but then I kept getting distracted and didn’t continue until June. This novel is a complicated heist in a hard SF world, so taking so long to read it was not a good idea. If it wasn’t for Analog providing a recap, I would have been completely lost when I finally got to part 2. Actually, I probably should have just started again, because I was still a bit lost. This is a book you need to be paying attention to, but I feel like it’s worth it.

This story follows conman Belisarius Arjona, a man of the subspecies Homo Quantus, who can entre altered states of mind that allow him to perceive quantum states. Like most people I know very little about quantum mechanics, but Künsken does a wonderful job of both describing what Belisarius and the other Homo Quantus perceive, and in ensuring the story always makes sense.

Belisarius is hired to get a fleet of advanced warships through a heavily guarded wormhole, a job that will require a team consisting of all the different subspecies of humanity, including the aquatic Tribe of the Mongrel, an A.I that thinks it is Saint Matthew, and the Puppets.

Oh damn, don’t get me started on the Puppets. They were engineered to be a slave race, who are small in statue and the scent of their masters triggers a sense of religious awe that the Puppets cannot survive without. But the Puppets overthrew their masters (for their own protection) and keep them imprisoned, only parading them around to get their fix. The scenes with Puppets worshipping their masters were extremely disturbing. There was some messed up shit there that raises questions about morality and free will.

The Quantum Magician is a fun heist in a fascinating, sometimes disturbing world. Would definitely recommend it when it is released in October. I’ll try and re-read it at some point. Magician is Künsken’s first novel, but some of his short fiction is set in the same universe, so I’ll have to remember to check out more of his work.

 

The Descent of Monsters

By JY Yang

Published July 2018

Score: 7.5/10

I’ve been enjoying JY Yang’s Tensorate series so far. The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune were amazing novellas that drew me into a unique silkpunk world with an interesting story and cast of characters. The Descent of Monsters continues this story, but it is very different to the previous novellas.

This story is told entirely through letters and journal entries. Because of that, we don’t get to feel as much of the world as we did in the previous novellas. We also don’t get any explanation on the culture or magic system, so whilst Black Tides and Red Threads can both stand alone, Descent of Monsters needs to be read third. It’s also interesting that the main character in Descent was not in the previous novellas, so we get to see the beloved characters from the first novellas from an outsider’s perspective.

The story of Descent follows up on a lot of story erm… threads that were introduced in Red Threads. I enjoyed seeing this storyline followed, but I didn’t enjoy this story as much as the previous novellas. I miss seeing as much of the Tensorate world as Yang can describe, and our new hero Chuwan picks up the idiot ball near the end.

Despite these misgivings, I still greatly enjoy this series and this book. I love where the story is going, and I love the normalisation of queer characters and correct pronoun use for non-binary characters. The next entry in the series, To Ascend to Godhod, is set to be released next year, and I am looking forward to it.

 

Beneath the Sugar Sky

By Seanan McGuire

Published January 2018

Score: 10/10

When I read Every Heart a Doorway, the first in the Wayward Children series, I found it enjoyable but felt it didn’t live up to the hype. Because of that, it took me a while to pick up Down Amongst the Sticks and Bones, but when I did I fell in love so hard. Then I was excited to read Beneath the Sugar Sky and so far it’s my favourite of the three.

The Wayward Children series is about children who slip through portals into fantasy worlds (think Narnia) and then find themselves back in our world. What do you do when you become a hero in a magical place and are then forced back into your original world, where you no longer fit in? I’ve always loved the premise, and with each book McGuire’s exploration of this premise gets better. Sugar Sky returns to Elenore West’s Home for Wayward Children, and we follow some of our favourite students, Christopher and Kade (who have returned from a Day of the Dead inspired world and a fantasy world of fairies and goblins respectively), along with newcomer Cora the mermaid and Nadia the drowned girl, as they deal with the fallout of the murders in Doorway. Rini, a girl in a dress made of cake, falls from the sky, looking to stop her mother Sumi (one of the girls murdered in Doorway) from dying before she returns to a candy land to overthrow the Queen of Cakes and give birth to Rini. Rini brings with her a magic bracelet that can travel between worlds, so we get an actual quest and it is amazing.

McGuire’s writing style is magical, with this series having a strong fairy tale feeling. I also loved the characters and worldbuilding, and in Sugar Sky the contrast between the characters, who come from logical, and sometimes dark worlds, and the richly detailed and highly illogical candy land of Confection was awesome.

I came across an artist named Rovina Cai, who was commissioned by Tor.com to provide illustrations for the series. (See them here) She captures the feel of the series really well, and these illustrations are worth checking out.

There are two more known Wayward children stories in the works. In an Absent Dream is due out in January 2019, and tells the story of Lundy in the Goblin Market. All I can find out about book 5 is that the title is Come Tumbling Down, and expected publication is in 2020. I imagine McGuire has a lot more stories to tell in this series, and I look forward to following the Wayward Children for years to come.

 

These were the standouts from the past few months, but I have read other things that I’d like to talk about later, such as Saga and Galaxy Patrol. This will do for now though. As much as I like my long detailed reviews, I’ll try and do monthly smaller ones. Hopefully doing so will allow me to discuss a larger variety of topics.

Happy Reading,

~Lauren

 

2018 Hugo Award for Best Novelette Finalists

Alright, I finished my Hugo reading just before voting closed, and now I present my thoughts on this year’s novelettes. Whilst writing these reviews, I realised that I tend to not find novelettes as exciting or memorable as short stories and novellas. Or at least, I haven’t come across as many novelettes that got to me as I have short stories and novellas. Maybe I should go on an awesome novelette binge soon. These five stories were a good place to start. Now onto the reviews

 

Children of Thorns, Children of Water

– Aliette de Bodard34851372

Read it here

I didn’t really feel much of anything for this story. It was enjoyable, well written, with an interesting world and good characters, but I felt like I was missing a lot of context. This is to be expected, since this novelette is just the one of the latest entries in de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, and I have read neither of the novels set in this world. I think if I was more familiar with this series, I’d have enjoyed this story a lot.

The highest praise I can give this story is that it made me want to read the first novel in the series, The House of Shattered Wings. The setting is so intriguing; Paris has been devastated by a war between fallen angels, and in the aftermath great houses have taken over and wield magic. There is also a strong Vietnamese influence, with a Dragon Kingdom also residing in the city. It really interested me that most of the magic comes from the fallen angels, but the dragons have a completely different magical system, and it was cool seeing the two systems interact.

I wish I had more feelings about this one, but I don’t think my lack of enthusiasm should be seen as a negative.

 

33985428Extracurricular Activities – Yoon Ha Lee

Read it here

I enjoyed this story a lot, but I’m not sure how much readers unfamiliar with Lee’s Machineries of Empire series would get out of this. Those unfamiliar with the series may feel the way I did about Children of Thorns, Children of Water. So much of my enjoyment from this story was seeing Jedao as just a normal Shuos spy/assassin, before the whole Hellspin Fortress thing. This story also expands the worldbuilding of this universe, and it was interesting to see Jedao outside Hexarchate space.

Even if you haven’t read any of the novels in this series, this is still a fun little story, with a lot of humour, a clever caper, and some kinky uses for goose fat. The Machineries of Empire series is amazing space opera, and despite being a novelette, Extracurricular Activities captures much of the same feel. It was also different to the other stories in the series in that it doesn’t focus on the Hexarchate’s reality-altering mathematical technology, but on old fashion assassin business, with pathogen-based duels and hairstyle etiquette also playing a part.

Extracurricular Activities is very a caper, which features queer and poly characters and showcases a fascinating corner of Lee’s universe. This story is a must for fans of Lee’s work and of Shuos Jedao. For those unfamiliar with the series, the novel Ninefox Gambit is the best place to start.

 

The Secret Life of Bots – Suzanne Palmer

Read it here

At first I thought this would be all comedy and fluff. A tiny robot (less than 3cms in size, so, tiny tiny) is tasked by the spaceship it serves to kill a pest that gets termed ‘ratbug’. We quickly find out that our little bot is an old obsolete model that has been given busywork while all the other bots are busy rebuilding Ship, who has been sitting in a junkyard for years and is being taken out on an important mission. Ship and the human crew distrust older, multipurpose bots like the protagonist because they have a tendency to improvise, making them unpredictable. The story cuts between the humans discussing their serious mission, and the bot, who will stop at nothing to complete its mission to catch the ratbug.

And mostly, I got what I expected from this story. Our bot is so old it is simply called ‘bot 9’, whilst every other bot on ship has a four or five digit designation. It is also the only bot on the ship that doesn’t have access to the bot internet. It’s quest to slay the ratbug is quite amusing, but as we find out more about the human crew’s mission, the stakes get raised, and we are presented with a problem that requires a clever, very SF solution. Would definitely recommend this story.

 

Small Changes over Long Periods of Time – K. M. Szpara

Read it here

This is an amazing gay vampire story that explores a lot of transgender issues. I had mixed feelings about it after the first read, but it has stuck with me. Finley is FtM transgender, and his life is changed when he is bitten by a vampire. A lot of my misgivings came from not liking the old vampire Andreas that turns Finn: Finn doesn’t consent to getting bitten, and yet the two end up having a somewhat friendly relationship. Andreas also has mind reading and strong powers of persuasion that fix just about every problem they come across.

But after a recent re-read of Small Changes, I find myself cutting Andreas some slack. After all, I’m one of many people that has been complaining about how vampires have lost their monstrousness over recent years, and there is no pretence of actual romance between the two, or any suggestion that the biting was the right thing to do. It reads more like Andreas made a selfish decision and is trying to fix things. Besides, Dracula had telepathic and hypnotic abilities, so Andreas having those powers is fair.

What this story does amazingly well is use vampirism to explore transgender issues. Once turned, Finn finds himself going through a lot of the same stuff he did when he transitioned: isolation, lack of control over his body and unsympathetic doctors for starters. The super-healing vampire powers cause Finn’s body to “repair” changes made for his transition, which he understandably finds horrific, and makes being a vampire an endless transition.

Szpara’s vampires live in a version of our world where vampires have become known and regulated. There are blood banks and blood doner registries, a long list of laws and regulations on who cannot be turned into a vampire (which includes trans people, of course), and medical clinics that are careful to close before sundown. Again, I cannot stress how well Szpara uses vampires to convey what it is like to be trans. Best of all, these vampires burn in the sun, as vampires should. I’m glad I reread Small Changes over Long Periods of Time, because there is so much to this novelette.

One last thing, there are sex scenes in this story. Bloodlust is very literal.

 

A Series of Steaks – Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Read it here

I’ve been very interested lately in the progress of artificial meat technology. Some companies seem to be getting close to making convincing lab-grown meat affordable. Even if lab-grown meat does become affordable, I can imagine that despite its potential to address issues related to animal welfare, human nutrition and climate change, there will be a lot of people against it. You know, being artificial and all that. Even if the technology is accepted, I image there will always be a prefrence for the real thing.

A Series of Steaks follows Helena, a beef forger with a hidden past, as she is forced to complete an impossible order or have her secrets exposed. We then get a high stakes (I swear I didn’t notice the pun until I typed it) forgery story that keeps us hooked while exploring the implications and the mechanics of this meat printing technology.

Despite working in a legal grey area, Helena and her assistant Lilly are both likable and easy to root for. The characters, technology, and the Nanjing setting all contribute to a fascinating plot, and I found the end very satisfying.

This story was very different to Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s other Hugo finalist (Fandom For Robots), and from these two stories I am very interested in seeing what she writes next.

 

Wind Will Rove – Sarah Pinsker

Read it here (as a PDF)

Generation ship stories tend to be good at making me emotional, and Wind Will Rove is no exception. This is a story about Rosie, a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation ship that has been travelling long enough to have a large population that has never known Earth, but not so long that the original crew are all gone. In that time, the ship has suffered damage to its databases, causing most of the information about Earth to be lost.

One thing about generation ships is that between people getting on and their descendants getting off, there will be generations of people who didn’t sign up for an interstellar voyage, but who nevertheless must spend their entire lives on the ship. Stories exploring the raw deal these middle generations have aren’t new, but I think Wind Will Rove deals with the potential of a generation ship losing its past in a very effective way.

Pinsker points out that there isn’t much incentive for these middle generations to cling to their past. Their experiences and issues are nothing like what the people of Earth had, and will be nothing like that of their descendants when the ship lands. They’ll never get to explore, or conquer, or discover, or even know what wind feels like. There is a clash between the people of Rosie’s generation and those older than her, who feel compelled to recreate all the culture and history lost when the databases were wiped and to preserve – unaltered – the songs and stories they still have, and Rosie’s students, who feel that this obsession with the past is meaningless to their lives and a distraction to establishing a culture that reflects their own experiences.

This clash isn’t just philosophical, it’s able to tear apart families, and it’s easy to see this desire to do away with the past cause problems down the track. This is one of the best stories I’ve seen for exploring the plight of these middle generations, and Pinsker sells it by showing us how easily our history is already being lost and purposely re-made. When Rosie plays a song that makes her think of a farm, her mental image of what a farm is subtly off. Even more amusing is the differences between the ship’s recreation of the movie Titanic and what everyone knows happened in the original. To be fair to the characters in this story though, we all know there was room for two on that door.

Wind Will Rove is an excellent story, that drives home the issues of generation ships, and discusses our relationship with history with more nuance than plenty of longer works. Definitely worth tracking down this story.

 

The winners of the Hugo Award will be announced on August 19. Like always, I’ve read a lot of great fiction in the lead-up to the awards, and I’m so glad there are no alien strippers getting boned by T-rexes this year. It’s so nice that there was no attempt to sabotage the awards.

Happy Reading,

~Lauren

 

2018 Hugo Award for Best Short Story Finalists

So sorry everyone, I seem to have gotten behind in my Hugo Award reading and reviewing. Maybe doing both the regular Hugos and the Retros was too much for me. Or maybe I can blame getting my wisdom teeth out. It sucks when life gets in the way of reading.

Okay, I’ll be honest, there were a few newer books I couldn’t wait to read, and I finally finished Metroid Prime. Yes, an amazing game I got about sixteen years ago, I finished for the first time this month. I have a problem with distractions.

All six of this year’s nominees for the short story category are amazing. We have anime-loving robots, warrior spirits in swords, a world of wind-up toys, and much more. All six nominees can be read for free online, and I have provided links in my reviews.

 

35706454

The Martian Obelisk – Linda Nagata

Read it here.

The Martian Obelisk is set in a world where there isn’t a lot of hope for the future. The titular obelisk is seen by some as a memorial or tombstone. I think one reason this apocalyptic future is so moving is that it isn’t technically an apocalypse. There is no single event that brings humanity down, but instead it seems that a wide range of problems take us down. As Nagata puts it:

 

‘It was not supposed to happen like this. As a child she’d been promised a swift conclusion: duck and cover and nuclear annihilation. And if not annihilation, at least the nihilistic romance of a gun-toting, leather-clad, fight-to-the-death anarchy.

That hadn’t happened either.

Things had just gotten worse, and worse still, and people gave up. Not everyone, not all at once – there was no single event marking the beginning of the end – but there was a sense of inevitability about the direction history had taken.’

 

This future is anti-climactic, but it is highly believable and therefore engaging. We follow architect Susannah Li-Langford as she uses remote technology to build a giant obelisk on Mars out of materials left over from failed colonies. Yes, Mars is dying too. Susannah’s lifework is interrupted by an unknown vehicle approaching the obelisk, and her and her patron must decide how to respond. From here we get a ray of light in this dark world, as Susannah decides whether to protect her work, or throw it away on a small chance to make the world a little better. The Martian Obelisk shows both the best and the worst parts of humanity, and stresses the importance of hope no matter how bleak the future looks.

 

Fandom For Robots – Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Read it here.

This is such a fun story, I re-read it completely the very day after I first read it. In Fandom for Robots, Computron, the world’s only sentient robot – who is an old, obsolete box-shapes contraption – becomes a fan of a Japanese anime series that stars a robot just like him called Cyro. Prasad’s writing is super fun and Computron’s characterisation is amazing. This paragraph about Computron waiting for the next episode of his show pulled me in:

‘Computron checks his internal chronometer, as well as the countdown page on the streaming website. There are twenty-two hours, five minutes, forty-six seconds, and twelve milliseconds until 2 am on Friday (Japanese Standard Time). Logically, he is aware that time is most likely passing at a normal rate. The Simak Robotics Museum is not within close proximity of a black hole, and there is close to no possibility that time is being dilated. His constant checking of the chronometer to compare it with the countdown page serves no scientific purpose whatsoever.

After fifty milliseconds, Computron checks the countdown page again.’

 

We get a funny, quirky, and touching story about Computron connecting with other fans of Hyperdimension Warp Record and learning to write fanfics. There is a lot of humour as this unemotional robot interacts with an online anime fandom, but this story is more than just a comedy. Interacting with the fandom gives Computron a community outside the robotics lab, including a friend. The fandom also gives Computron an opportunity to teach other fans about older, non-android robots, and just seeing a robot like himself, facing robot-related issues, helps Computron overcome his own painful memories. This story is a wonderful demonstration of how empowering it is to see yourself represented in fiction, and the joys in being part of a fandom.

 

Sun, Moon, Dust – Ursula Vernon

Read it here.

Farm boy Allpa lives in a medieval fantasy world and is given a magical sword by his dying grandmother. From the sword three warrior spirits – named Sun, Moon, and Dust – come forth to train him to be a master swordsman and help fight his enemies.

Allpa shows them how he grows potatoes.

When I first read this story, I found it amusing and thought the male/male romance was good for a 5000 word story, but I didn’t think it was award worthy. Reading it again, I appreciate it more, especially now that it’s clicked just what it means that this is a story about a young person in a fantasy setting getting a magic sword and a call to adventure, but happily staying home and tending his farm. Not everyone is an amazing hero, and that’s cool. As Sun says; “But there are all kinds in this world, and sometimes it is good to be reminded of that.”

This story didn’t blow me away in the same way the others on this list did, but it is still a charming story with fun characters that turns a staple fantasy trope on it’s head with good humour and a lot of heart. I’m glad I re-read it, because it is a fun, meaningful story that has earned a place on this list.

 

Carnival Nine – Caroline M. Yoachim

Read it Here.

I was not expecting a story about wind-up toys to be so emotional. In this world, all the characters get wound up everyday by the ‘maker’ and the amount of turns they’ve been given dictates how much they can do. From the start, I loved how well this works as a metaphor for how much we have to do and how little time we get, but Yoachim ended up saying a lot more with this premise.

This story is about Zee, a girl with a good mainspring that can hold a lot of turns, often somewhere between 30 and 50. With her extra energy, she longs for a life of adventure, and one day when she has 52 turns (more than anyone she’s ever met) she skips out on her chores to go to the carnival. From there we follow Zee through the rest of her life, as she gets her adult limbs, eventually joins the carnival, gets married, and makes a child. Literally makes a child from spare parts.

Zee’s son Mattan gets 4 turns on his first day. He never gets more than 10. Zee has to spend her extra turns carrying Mattan, because walking would burn through all his turns. Mattan barely talks, because doing so uses up turns, which have to be saved for important things. Zee is looking after a disabled child, and despite her and Mattan being wind-up toys, the struggles of having to be a full time carer, and of needing full time care are accurately portrayed.

Carnival Nine is a touching story, brought to life by amazing worldbuilding and characters.

 

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand – Fran Wilde

Read it Here.

I didn’t really get this story the first time I read it. By the end, I figured it had something to do with the way the world sees disabled people, and I was mostly right. Despite the lack of clarity, this piece is able to convey a lot of emotion. You are being guided around a Victorianesque freakshow by the narrator, and everything about this story, from the view-point (second-person and low to the ground), the descriptions of the different rooms, the narrator’s tone, and the surreal nature of the story makes for a powerfully uncomfortable experience.

After a re-read and a bit of research on Fran Wilde, I felt like I got the story. Even before then, I got enough to appreciate Wilde’s writing and the experiences she was conveying. There are a lot of people out there who’ll find this story resonates with them a lot more than it did with me, and for those who don’t get it, you’ll come away with a lot to think about.

This was more a surreal experience than a story, and Wilde’s writing makes it a memorable, thought provoking experience.

 

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience TM – Rebecca Roanhorse

Read it Here.

Another second-person story, and another clever, uncomfortable story. In Indian Experience, we examine the damage done by cultural appropriation and the struggle to hold on to an Indigenous identity.

Whilst the story is told in second-person, the ‘you’ is not implied to be the reader. ‘You’ is Jesse Turnblatt, an Indian (Native American) man who guides tourists through virtual reality experiences. Jesse’s most popular experience is Vision Quest, a program that offers tourists a ‘dash of mystical Shaman’, ‘a spirit animal’, and ‘the approximation of a peyote experience’. In other words, a stereotype labelled as authentic. I wasn’t keen on the second-person perspective being used this way, but the story was good enough to get me past it, and at the end, I realised there was a very good reason why the story was told this way. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about why this works without spoilers.

This is a brutal story, that addresses issues of race, identity, and cultural appropriation. I felt that the ending brought everything together, using the virtual reality technology in an interesting way to deliver its messages. I greatly enjoyed Roanhorse’s writing, and am now interested in her new novel, the Lightning Trail.

 

The deadline for voting in this year’s Hugos has snuck up on me. I’m currently finishing up the Novelettes and will have those reviews up soon. I’m also still working on the shorter fiction for the Retro Hugos; or at least, the ones I have access to. My thoughts on the best stories of 1942 will be posted here in a couple of weeks. Or in sixteen years.

Happy reading everyone,

~Lauren

2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella Finalists

I was thinking earlier this year that maybe I should cover other awards, after all, the Hugos aren’t everything. But doing both the regular and retro Hugos this year has shown me why that is not a good idea; there is so much to review, and so many other things to read. Thankfully all the novels and novellas I’ve read so far have been a lot of fun. I’m not sure if I’ll end up reviewing the novelettes and short stories, at least not for a while. But I’m all caught up on the 2018 novellas, and after a little break to read Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun and feeding my new addiction to Saga comics, I’ll find the Retro Hugo nominees and read the hell out of them. For now, let’s meet the 2018 Hugo Nominees for Best Novella.

 

The Black Tides of Heaven – JY Yang33099588

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first entry in the Tensorate series, and it has got me well and truly invested in this world. The Tensorate is a richly detailed silkpunk world with heavy East Asian influences and a clever magic system called Slackcraft (Seems to be a thread analogy: magical energy is slack until a ‘tensor’ comes and pulls at it.)

I’ve always had an appreciation for fantasy worlds that include technology, as it has seemed strange that magic should always come at the expense of scientific advancement. Here we have a society where magic is a basis of power, and a ‘Machinist’ rebellion is building, which seeks to use technology to empower people who are not proficient in magic. Exploring the social and political implications of guns and other technology being introduced to a magical, fantasy setting is a real treat, and not something I come across too often. The scene with the Sunballs I found particularly haunting.

But this isn’t the point of the story, and I would be remiss to paint Black Tides of Heaven as a story about technology or rebellion. It is the story of two twins, Akeha and Mokoya, as they grow up under the toxic influence of their mother, the tyrannical Protector. They were born as barging chips, threatened with separation at the whim of their mother, and eventually find different paths in life.

The story takes place over many decades, which leads to big time skips that given the novella length make some events feel rushed or not fully described. Akeha joining the Machinists seemed to come out of no-where for example.

33099586Another strength of the story is how Yang handles gender and sexuality. In the Tensorate, children are treated as genderless until they confirm their gender. This can happen at any age, and slackcraft is used to prevent any markers of adulthood from showing until confirmation happens. Mokoya and Akeha are identical twins, but both get confirmed as different genders. Akeha’s decision to be confirmed as a man is a surprise to his family and a source of tension between him and Mokoya. Akeha’s love interest is also a man, and you know what, I love how stories with LGBTI+ themes are becoming such a strong presence within the genre.

Black Tides of Heaven was released along with the next book in the series, The Red Threads of Fortune. The novellas are described as standalone introductions to the series, but I would start with Black Tides of Heaven, as Red Threads of Fortune takes place later chronologically and references events in Black Tides.

One last thing, have you seen the cover art from this series? Despite being novellas, I would not mind having physical copies of these books on my shelf.

 

32758901All Systems Red – Martha Wells 

This was a fun story about a security android (called a SecUnit) who is charged with protecting a group of scientists on a dangerous planet. The plot is simple, interesting, and works because the SecUnit protagonist, which calls itself Murderbot, is a fantastic character.

Murderbot is self-aware, and has hacked its own ‘governor module’, which means it no longer has to obey humans. Rather than go on a rampage, it downloads hours of TV shows and puts the bare minimum effort into its job so it can be by itself watching shows.

The scientists under Murderbot’s care see it as just another tool, until one day an explosion injures a member of the crew and Murderbot shows its face in order to keep the injured human calm. The crew come to realise that they have overlooked Murderbot’s personhood, which leads to some soul-searching amongst the group, and overtures of friendship towards Murderbot. Murderbot is so shy that this new attention causes it anxiety.

As an introvert myself, I related to Murderbot quite well. Not only is Murderbot introverted, but it is sarcastic and apathetic to a lot of what goes on around it. I’ve seen the first paragraph quoted a lot, and I’m going to repeat it because it sums up the character and story so well:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

When I first heard of All Systems Red, I was expecting a ‘science team on remote planet deal with killer robot story.’ I was not expecting to laugh so much. I was not expecting to feel so much empathy for Murderbot. This was a fun, action-packed story. I’ve recently read the sequel, Artificial Condition, and I feel Murderbot’s journey is going to keep getting better.

 

And Then There Were (N-One) – Sarah Pinsker

Insurance investigator Sarah Pinsker is invited to a convention on a remote island by a version of herself from a different reality, who has discovered how to open portals to alternate timelines. Everyone attending the convention is an alternative version of Sarah Pinsker, and everyone is looking forward to seeing how different events could have changed their lives. The fun is cut short by a murder, so Sarah the insurance investigator must discover who killed a different iteration of herself.

I love this premise so much. Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like meeting different versions of yourself from alternate timelines? Everyone wants to know how different events might have played out differently and led us to become different people. This story goes about exploring these questions in a fun way, and even before the murder mystery came into play, I was interested in seeing how the convention was being put together.

The mystery was crazy. How can it not be when everyone involved is the same person? There were so many pieces to put together, and whilst it was a bit hard to follow everything, I feel the mystery – and the story – came to a satisfying end.

 

Binti: Home – Nnedi Okorafor30038654

It’s hard for me to write about this one, because I’ve read the third novella in the series, The Night Masquerade, more recently than Home, and despite how much I enjoyed this series I’m not ready to re-read parts of it yet. I don’t think that a re-read would help either, since The Night Masquerade is a direct follow on to Home and having read it will always influence the way I see the previous entries in the series.

One thing that struck me about Home was how deeply it explored Binti’s cultural roots and the repercussions her decision to defy her people’s taboos have caused. In the first Novella, Binti left the lands of her people, the Himba, to go to a huge university in space. It was her dream come true, but the Himba are not supposed to leave their homes. Now that Binti has come home, she is confronted with the anxiety and shame she has caused her family by leaving. She must reconcile her culture, which has always been such a pillar of who she is, with other aspects of herself, like her desire to leave for university, as well as other changes she has faced along the way. Binti is of two different worlds now, and coming home forces her to discover just who she has become.

Binti also suffers from PTSD as a result of the actions in the last book. After feeling that things wrapped up a bit too nice and friendly in the last book, I was glad to see such a huge does of reality. What happened in Binti was horrific, and I’m glad that the impact those event had on Binti hasn’t been glossed over. Binti’s struggles to reclaim her life – even though she doesn’t know what her life should be like anymore – made her a very compelling character.

All in all, this wasn’t what I was expecting from the series. After the first book and all the trouble Binti went to get to Oozma University, I was looking forward to seeing more of the university and seeing Binti interacting with more aliens. However, Binti’s story has always been about her coming of age and finding a path that harmonises all the different facets of who she is. To fully explore this, and to fully heal from the trauma of the previous book, she needed to come home.   

 

31450908Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Seanan McGuire

The second instalment of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The first novella, Every Heart a Doorway, was the winner of last year’s Hugo Award. Whilst I liked Every Heart a Doorway, I felt as if it didn’t live up to the hype. My main gripe with EHaD was that it was too short to explore both it’s own plot and adequately tell the stories of all the other characters and magical worlds. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of twins Jack and Jill in their world, before they returned to Earth and the events of Doorway happened. This more focused plot, with one fully realised world, two of the more interesting characters from EHaD, and McGuire’s amazing writing promised to be everything I was hoping for in Every Heart a Doorway, and as expected I found myself loving this book more than the original.

This story was well and truly a dark fairy tale, with an all-present narrator who leads us on a creepy journey through the moors with Jack and Jill. The characterisation and worldbuilding were amazing, I’d met the characters and heard about the world in the first book, but here is were they really shine. We learn everything about the twins: the story starts with their parents deciding to have children, and we follow them for years before they find their magical staircase. Jack and Jill’s parents (who would never call them Jack and Jill, it’s always Jacqueline and Jillian), each have their own idea of what they want their perfect child to be, and each molds one of the twins into their perfect daughter.

Jacqueline is her mother’s perfect princess; the pretty one, who would never be allowed to wear jeans. Meanwhile Jillian is the closest her Dad will get to that son he always wanted, and so she is expected to be the athletic, tough tomboy. Is this depiction highly exaggerated? Maybe, but there are a lot of parents who try to make their kids fit into certain roles, and the exaggeration fits in with the fairy tale story-telling. It’s also a good look at how many different ways there are to be a girl, and how important it is to let kids be kids and let them find their own roles.

Jack and Jill find themselves in the moors, a cruel world under a huge red moon, full of vampires and werewolves and drowned gods. There had been a few descriptions of the moors in EHaD, but I’d always thought of it as a small place until now. Down Amongst the Sticks and Bones paints a cruel, dark, and huge world.

The next novella in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, returns to Elanor West’s school, but the forth book seems to be another backstory. I’ll be quite happy if McGuire continues to alternate between the main story in the ‘real world’ and the children’s backstories.

 

River of Teeth – Sarah GaileyRiver of Teeth (River of Teeth, #1)

There has been a lot of love for this book, and it feels like I was one of the few people not completely blown away with the premise. Alright, ‘western revenge-plot with killer hippos’ is a pretty cool premise, but it wasn’t an instant sell for me. It sounded fun, but not anything that would blow me away.

Now I’ve read River of Teeth and come to a conclusion: it’s a fun book, but it didn’t blow me away. There was a lot of cool worldbuilding, but the story didn’t pull me in. I didn’t think much of the plan, and a lot of things just seemed to happen to the characters, rather than from their own agency. One thing that I felt was rushed was the main romantic pairing. I liked seeing these two characters come together, but I feel they went from strangers to madly in love unrealistically fast.

Which brings us on to the characters. They were a fun, diverse cast of hippo riders. I feel their diversity both helps and hurts the story. It helps because it’s great seeing a varied cast in a western, and as we were meeting the characters I was really interested in them, but the way these characters fit into the 1890s America setting felt a bit off at times.

I’ll use Hero to explain what I mean. They’re a non-binary or intersex character. When they first meet the protagonist Houndstooth, they get right up in his face and say: “Ask. I know you’re wondering. If we’re going to work together, you may as well ask.”  I loved this exchange; it shows that Hero cops shit for being non-binary in this time period, and Houndstooth’s reply sets their relationship up beautifully. However, for the rest of the book everyone gets Hero’s pronouns right, including a stranger who has never met them and only sees them unconscious. Using the singular ‘them’ is something people living in the 21st century who are aware of gender-diversity stumble over at times, seeing 19th century U.S. Marshals and mercenaries say it so naturally was odd. If the world had been more fantastical, rather than historically-based, I wouldn’t have any issues with the diverse cast, but aside from one easily resolved speed-bump where they need a white man to buy their supplies, they don’t come across the attitudes I was expecting them too. Which is a shame, because they had some interesting reactions to the small issues they came across.

Despite my issues, this book was still a lot of fun. I was struggling to put it down close to the end, and whilst I’m not in love with the series, I’m not against continuing. Seeing more of the world and the attitudes in it, spending more time with the characters, and seeing the actual result of their plan may address the issues I had and make me like River of Teeth more.

Review – The Uninvited

The Uninvited3564508

By Dorothy Macardle

Published 1942

Score: 9/10

 

A ghost story set in England during the 1940s. It read like a period drama and as I started reading I really did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The writing is beautifully descriptive, the characters are amazing people to go on such a journey with, and I loved how they went about dealing with their haunted house.

The Uninvited was originally published in 1941 under the title Uneasy Freehold, and then in the following year was published in the US under it’s current title. In 1944 the book was adapted into a movie, which was notable for being the first film to portray ghosts as ghosts, rather than illusions or comical misunderstandings. The trailer can be found here. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but if you have seen the 1944 movie, keep in mind that like all adaptations the book is different.

The book was wonderfully written. It is about brother and sister Rodrick and Pamela moving out of London to their dream house in the countryside. The house is a mansion by the cliffs that needs a lot of work, but they are still amazed that they were able to afford it. (Maybe the term ‘mansion’ isn’t technically correct, but it was a big house with lots of rooms. I wish I could afford a place like that by writing reviews.) I was excited for them, and when they started being woken up by ‘disturbances’ I was invested in their problem. I really wanted them to find a way to stop the haunting and live in their beautiful house in peace.

Unlike other books I’ve been reading lately, The Uninvited had a very English drama feel to it, and was definitely more literary than the genre fiction. The fact that it’s set in a different time meant that, like when I read Frankenstein in Baghdad earlier this year, I occasionally felt like some parts flew over my head, especially in some conversations. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the story though, and I think I really needed a break from classic SF, so The Uninvited went down well.

I found this book nearly impossible to put down. Rather than treat the ghost as a mindless angry monster, Pamela and Rodrick try to understand the haunting. They record everything, investigate the life and death of the house’s previous resident, and try to find a way to put the restless soul to rest. All the while they must look out for Stella, a young lady born in their house who is highly at risk from the ghost. The motives and history of the ghost made for an amazing mystery with a satisfying – though maybe obvious – ending.

Macardle’s writing really brings this story and the characters to life. The descriptions of the ghost and all the disturbances around the house were quite spooky, and while maybe it is tame compared to today’s horror/supernatural stories, if you love haunted houses and ghosts, this is a must-read.

 

 

 

 

Reviews: The Collapsing Empire and Six Wakes

The Collapsing Empire and Six Wakes

 Finished the two Hugo Nominees I haven’t reviewed yet. I’d been meaning to read both of them earlier, but The Collapsing Empire I never got around to, and Six Wakes seems to have not made it to my country yet. Couldn’t find it on the Australian Kindle store or in Australian shops. I had a similar problem with Too Like the Lightning last year, but I did manage to get that one from Audible. Six Wakes wasn’t even available there. Not unless I wanted to subscribe to the US Audible. If that would have worked. I was thinking of just waiting until I got the voter packet, but in the end I just didn’t want to wait anymore and ordered a copy online. After all that effort, I am so glad to be able to finally read and review these books.

The Collapsing Empire

By John Scalzi

Published March 21st 2017 (Tor Books)

Score: 8/10

The Collapsing Empire is a fun, accessible, and impossible-to-put-down space opera that I enjoyed every moment of. We are taken into a world called the Interdependency, where all human inhabited worlds are connected by an extra-dimensional field called The Flow, and no world has the resources to survive without trading. There are great houses and royalty and rebellions and scientists and ship captains galore. Everything great about the genre. Well, nearly everything. No aliens, but there’s no need for them here.

The problem with the Interdependency is that The Flow is about to collapse, leaving all those interdependent worlds to fend for themselves. To make matters worse, there is only one world in the Interdependency that is an actual habitable planet, and due to how far away from the trade routes it is, it’s been used as a backwater for exiles for decades. The story follows three characters – a scientist studying The Flow, the daughter of a house and trader, and the newly crowned Emperox – as they realise just how screwed the Interdependency is.

All three storylines are a lot of fun, and the main characters all feel real. It’s nice that there were so many strong female characters here. It’s like reading an old-school space opera, but with modern sensibilities in mind. The parallels between the collapse of The Flow and the inability of previous Emperox’s to respond to the threat and our own issues with responding to climate change were great, and didn’t feel too preachy.

What let me down though is that The Collapsing Empire felt more like the set up to the series, rather than a complete story in itself. Though I imagine if the second book was out now I wouldn’t care too much about that.

 

Six Wakes

By Mur Lafferty

Published January 31st 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 7.5

Six Wakes is a locked-room murder mystery with a twist. We dive into a world divided between humans and clones. Clones get their minds copied and implanted into a clone of themselves when they die, and there are strict rules governing the whole process. The story starts when the crew of a ship heading towards a new planet wake up from the cloning process with no memory of how they died and their previous bodies floating dead in the ship and their computer damaged.

The story takes place over five days as the crew try to repair the damage and piece together what happened. It’s a simple but intriguing premise, and as we learn more about the characters and unravel the mystery the book becomes impossible to put down. There is a lot of action on the ship itself, but also a lot of opportunities to explore the ethical implications of the cloning technology. It is mentioned that with the technology to copy a human mind and download it into a new body, there also comes the ability to ‘hack’ a person: To change aspects of their personality or alter their memories. Some of the technological speculation reminded me of the game Soma by Frictional Games, where mind copying – and how it isn’t the same as mind transference – is a big deal. Especially the parts that focused on the captain of the ship.

There is a lot of information to take in and I’m not sure if that hindered the ‘fairness’ or solvability of the mystery. I didn’t figure out what happened until the characters did, but I also tend to gloss over dates and timeframes, so someone who is paying more attention might figure out who the killer was earlier. Not that being able to solve a mystery yourself should be an essential part of a mystery, but I tend to prefer mysteries that I could have possibly figured out myself.

For a story that takes place over a few days with a handful of characters in a confined area, Six Wakes packs in a lot of world-building. What does personhood mean when we can be re-programmed? Does cloning make life cheap? Or was it always cheap? How do religions react to the technology? This book contains interesting questions, great world-building, and a fantastic plot. The characters are a bit forgettable though. Six Wakes is a fun book, and I’m glad I put in the effort to get myself a copy.

 

~ Lauren

 

 

 

Review – Beyond This Horizon

Beyond This Horizon540503

By Robert A. Heinlein (Writing as Anson McDonald)

Published 1942

Score: 6.5

 

I’m still thinking about how I feel about this one. I have read Heinlein years ago and enjoyed stories like Time Enough for Love, Job: A Comedy of Justice, and Stranger in a Strange Land but the last Heinlein story I read, Friday, I could not get into. I had a lot more fun with Beyond this Horizon. It contains a lot of amazing ideas, gems of quotable Heinlein social commentary, and some top-notch worldbuilding that even after 70 years feels exciting. However, I listened to this as an audiobook while driving to and from work. I got home on Friday just as a chapter finished, and I could see that I had twenty-six minutes of book left. I spent that night reading an issue of Asimov’s. (Shout Out to Liu Cixin’s The Sea of Dreams. Favourite novelette of the year so far.) There were pacing and storytelling bugs in this book so great, that I found myself near the end and being in no particular hurry to finish.

Let’s focus on all the good things about Beyond This Horizon. Heinlein often uses small details to make the future feel real. The best example is the famous line ‘The door dilated’, which has been praised for decades as the perfect example of an understated sentence that conveys a crystal-clear image of a high-tech future society. There were other little lines that did a lot to build this world. There are still info-dumps and a particularly obvious “And as you know…” spiel, but over all this book shows some of the future-making techniques that Heinlein has became famous for.

I suppose I should say what this book is about, and it’s here we get to some of my issues with it. It’s about Hamilton Felix, who lives in a world of positive eugenics and gun duels. He has been selectively bred to be awesome, and now the local geneticist wants to breed him with an equally awesome woman and make babies that are as perfect as possible. Hamilton refuses to have children until he knows the meaning of life. Then he gets mixed up in a future tiki-torch group that want to take over the government and use genetic engineering to make a society with castes (they get to be the leader caste of course). While this happens a man from the past (the 1920s) is found and tries to adjust to modern life, and Hamilton’s friend Munro-Alpha has problems in his love-life. Then the supremacist group tries to take over the world, and that plot climaxes about halfway through the book. After that we go on to the more mundane stuff about raising kids and researching supernatural stuff. I found this last section a bit boring, but then again children have never appealed to me.  There are a lot of interesting things in Beyond This Horizon. It’s worth reading for the ideas and world, but I feel it was too many good ideas jammed into too short a book to be a great novel. I read a lot I liked, but I found myself not excited about the book as a whole.

Let’s talk about characters. In particular, about the female characters. Heinlein does this thing where he writes strong female characters and supports equality between the sexes, but he also expresses a lot of gender stereotypes that come across as sexist today. If you’re familiar with Heinlein, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t, then I’ll just say that modern readers are in for a bumpy ride. Especially for the scene where Hamilton meets his love interest Phyllis.

Phyllis is an interesting example of how Heinlein writes women. She goes armed, unlike most women in this society, and when she gets in a firefight she is shown to be highly competent. She’s also flirty and has a lot of agency. Yet at one point, she states that making babies is “what she’s for”.

I guess what I’m saying, is that Beyond This Horizon is fair for it’s time. Progressive for it’s time even, at least when it comes to women. Possibly for race too. There is an n-bomb dropped, followed by the phrase ‘what does your colour have to do with anything?’ Besides values, the scientific understanding about how DNA works has also advanced since Beyond This Horizon was written. You really have to keep in mind that this book was written in 1942.

None of the other characters stand out for me, male or female. They were fun, but not memorable. If you haven’t read Heinlein before, then this isn’t the best place to start, but if you keep in mind the time it was written it’s still got a lot of good things going for it. I just wish all those good plots and ideas came together better.

 

~ Lauren

 

Review – The Darkness and the Light

The Darkness and the Light

By Olaf Stapledon

Published 1942

Score: 8

 

I’ll be reading the Retro Hugos this year. Or at least, all the ones I can find. Let’s start with The Darkness and the Light, an examination of two futures for humanity: one a utopia that has enough issues to remain interesting, and the other one of the most horrific dystopias I have ever encountered.

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Oh well, I did only pay $1.31. Still worth it.

Before I start talking about this story, I have to pause a moment and rip on the quality of the Kindle edition I got. I think someone copy and pasted a PDF without bothering to format it for eReaders. The formatting was painful to read. According to Goodreads, there is another Kindle edition out there by Gateway, but I haven’t been able to find it on the Australian Amazon store. Once I did get into the story the formatting became easier to ignore, which I’m going to say is an accomplishment in itself for Stapledon.

This book is entirely exposition, without dialog or even any named characters appearing. We get a full examination of the future of humanity. Stapledon extrapolates the after-effects of WWII, which eventually sees the Soviet Union and China take over most of the world. The last holdout against these tyrannical Empires is Tibet, and Stapledon explores two far-flung futures based on first the failure than the success of Tibet’s rebellion against the ‘darkness’. Stapledon leaves it up to the reader to decide which of the outcomes is the true future.

The world-building skill in The Darkness and the Light is amazing. Both futures are so well thought out that it is easy to forgive that history has marched on during the past 76 years. There were a lot of things in here that reeked of 1940s views, but there was also a lot of things that were progressive for the time, like a Zulu World President and Eastern traditions playing a huge role in making the good future good. After all, it was the Tibetan people who saved the world here. There are some parts modern readers may find objectional, but it hasn’t aged as badly as some books.

I’m impressed that the exploration of the utopian future was just as interesting as the rest of the book. Utopia can be boring, since struggle and conflict are so essential to a good story, but Stapledon makes it work here. We get to see what happens after the “Tibet saves the world and everyone lived happily ever after’ part. The New World still has issues, and they still face crises, but unlike the dystopian world and our own, the people in this world can work out most of their disagreements peaceably. The people in the good future also progress to the point where they gain a goal that we can never hope to attempt today. A goal that reminded me of Lovecraft in it’s nature but was totally unlike Lovecraft in tone. The best part of the utopian future was that humanity was no longer insignificant and helpless on a cosmic level and I enjoyed reading that.

I expected to come into this review and talk more about the bad future than the good, but I feel that we’re all familiar with what makes a good dystopia by now. I will say that the bad future Stapledon portrays was one of the most chillingly vile dystopias I’ve read in a long time. Stand-out features of this future include a radio device installed in the human brain that allows all thoughts to be monitored and eventually for commands to be issued. The sheer impossibility of any resistance against the state was terrifying. There was also a chapter detailing the state’s attempts to increase population by subjugation and flat-out torture of women that was especially horrific. The fate of humanity in this dystopia was disturbing. Completely implausible, but still a fitting, disturbing end.

I think the best part about this book is how relevant it feels in today’s world. We seem to be faced with two possible futures. On one hand, living standards around the world are the best they have ever been and look to increase, technology has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, to open new frontiers to human exploration, to connect us with our fellow humans in a way never before possible. Everywhere I look I see efforts to reduce the suffering of people and animals, to repair the damage that has been done against our environment and our society, and to push back against those vested interests that wish to maintain the current, exploitive status quo. There is a push towards the Light here in our own time, and the potential is amazing.

On the other hand, if you don’t live under a rock the path to Darkness is painfully obvious. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether it’s too late to save ourselves. In The Darkness and the Light, the bad future reached a point were it could no longer be redeemed long before it’s end. The loss of the Tibetan Resistance was a complete victory for the Darkness. Have we reached that point yet? I think there is a lot of horrible stuff that will happen within the next hundred years no matter what we do now, but humanity has pulled through upheavals before. I think our Tibet is yet to come, but it will come and it’ll be soon enough that we need to start working towards the future we want now.

I encourage everyone to read The Darkness and the Light. And I hope that when people get to the part about the Tibetal Resistance, they notice why it led to two vastly different outcomes. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t because of a natural event, a great man, or a pivotal battle going a different way. It was because of a difference in attitude. It was because of the actions of an entire population. Take note of how Stapledon’s Tibetans reacted to the tyranny around them, because that’s what we need more of today.

 

~ Lauren