Today, legions of Whovians are welcoming the Doctor back for another new season of BBC’s science fiction television program Doctor Who. And then there’s yours truly, probably one of the last three people on this earth who hasn’t watched the show yet. I won’t even be able to speak on the matter of how well the books capture the spirit of the series, because I just don’t know. As such, you might be wondering why I’m reading them. To that, I point you to my love of science fiction and fondness for media tie-ins of all kinds.
This is a category of fiction that has come a long way. Media tie-ins and novelizations of movies or television shows have long gotten a bad rap for hardly ever being able to live up to the original source material, but in the last few years I have noticed a definite rise in the quality of stories and writing in this area. Tie-ins aren’t strictly for hardcore fans anymore; many of the books now can stand on their own with lots to offer in terms of plot and characters, providing general audiences with a good reading experience or the perfect jumping-on point for those curious about a media property – folks just like me. I’m definitely interested in the Doctor Who series; a lot of my friends adore this show and I want to find out more. And of course I would never say no to checking out a book.
After much internal deliberation and conflict, I decided to start with Doctor Who: Royal Blood, a story about a falling kingdom, invading armies, and let’s face it, any mention of a “Grail Quest” and you can pretty much guarantee I’m on board. This book begins with the Twelfth Doctor and Clara arriving on an unnamed planet, where they are quickly ushered into the city-state of Varuz to meet its Duke Aurelian and his wife, Lady Guena. All is not well in their kingdom. Their palace is crumbling, the nobles have wondrous electric gadgets but they barely have the power or knowledge (“What, shoot death rays? I shouldn’t think so!”) to work them, and a rival Duke on the other side of the mountains is even now preparing to launch an attack.
Taking him for a holy man, Aurelian asks The Doctor for his blessing in the coming war and refuses to surrender. Meanwhile, everyone else wants to avoid conflict, seizing upon an opportunity to negotiate with the mysterious stranger who shows up at the castle, presumably the ambassador of Conrad, the rival Duke. Aurelian does not take this well when he finds out, throwing poor Clara and the ambassador out of his city which leaves the Doctor behind to hold the fort, so to speak, along with Guena and Bernhardt, Varuz’s most trusted knight. But even that may not be enough though, when a company of thirty warriors shows up, led by a captain claiming to be the great Sir Lancelot. He also claims that he is from Ravenna, and on behalf of his King Arthur, they are on a mission to seek out the most holy of treasures.
For such a slim volume – presumably to appeal to all Doctor Who fans, young and old – I was actually very impressed with the richness of the writing and story. A quick look at Una McCormack’s author page shows that she’s written many other Doctor Who books as well as a few Star Trek titles. She’s clearly no stranger to writing a good tie-in and it shows in her smart pacing of the plot. The story’s construction is solid, has great flow, and is easy to read. I had a moment of confusion early on when I encountered a point-of-view change, where the narrative inexplicably switched from being first-person to third-person (told in Bernhardt and then Clara’s POV, respectively) and it continues on in this fashion for the rest of the novel. It’s a very bizarre decision, one that I wasn’t sure about initially, but it ended up working surprisingly well. It’s worth noting too that even though the Doctor is the series and book’s titular character, his role in this feels more like a supporting character rather than the main protagonist. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s also quite intriguing.
On that note, while we are speaking of bucking expectations I most certainly also found Royal Blood to go against the trend of tie-in books being poorly cobbled together or coming across very “bare-bones.” This book reads like a sci-fi adventure for young adults, with an ambitious plot written into a small package, but is no less enjoyable because of it. I had my doubts before picking it up but I actually ended up liking it a lot. If it was fun for me, I imagine it would be even better for fans of the show, though going in blind likely benefited in some ways as well, since I had no preconceived notions of how a Doctor Who novel should “feel” like. Still, based on the things I’ve heard, I imagine the tone of style of it to be similar to an episode of the show – fast-paced and adventurous, with a good dose of humor.
In the end, it was probably a good thing that I started with Royal Blood. Released on the same day along with Deep Time by Trevor Baxendale and Big Bang Generation by Gary Russel, it seems Royal Blood is the introductory volume of the three books that make up a series called The Glamour Chronicles, following the Doctor on his adventures across time and space in search for The Glamour, “the most desirable—and dangerous—artifact in the universe.” Whovian or not, the trilogy could be worth a look if that sounds interesting to you. This was my first Doctor Who novel but it most likely won’t be my last, especially if the other two books in the series prove just as easy–and fun–to get into.
A month and a half has gone by since I read and reviewed The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata, and I have to admit I’m still reeling from the ending. Everything in that story from its climax onwards was nothing short of an insanely red hot face-melting explosion of whiplash-inducing action and frenzy. That’s the kind of experience that stays with you for a long time, but nonetheless I felt more than ready to take on its sequel.
Our protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley is back in the battle for justice, but first he and his soldiers must answer for their own actions taken in the unauthorized mission known as First Light. As the country struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and communications systems in the wake of an all-out nuclear terrorist attack, everyone in the team known as the Apocalypse Squad find themselves facing court-martials.
Meanwhile, out in the cloud still lurks the rogue AI program known as “The Red”. Given time, it can get anywhere and access anything linked to the network, including the neural implants in soldiers’ brains – soldiers like Shelley, who has long questioned the motives of the Red. It has already hacked into his head and lead him here; what more does it have planned for him and his team?
When I first learned of the title for this book, I thought it would be referring to the story and the characters’ experiences in a more symbolic sense. Turns out, it was quite literal as well. There are a couple courtroom trials in the spotlight here, and we begin with Apocalypse Squad’s. The public is torn on the actions Shelley and his team took at the end of the first book, and there’s a period of suspense where we are left wondering whether they’ll find the support they need from the government or be thrown under the bus. If you enjoy tense courtroom dramas, you will also enjoy this intro.
Because this is a spoiler-free review, I won’t be revealing what happens. Still, if you’ve read the first book or even my review of First Light, you’ve probably already guessed that the men and women of Apocalypse Squad remain fiercely loyal to Shelley and to each other. This is a series where there’s never a shortage when it comes to the examples of camaraderie between soldiers and kinds of lives they lead. In both this novel and its predecessor, I find there are lots of powerful themes imbedded in the story. Like, what it might mean for a soldier who sees the army as his or her family, support system, and their whole life. What might happen if they suddenly lose contact with that world. It also briefly explores the subject of PTSD, how soldiers with it deal with what they’ve seen while serving in the line of duty, and why some find it difficult to adjust to life after the military.
Compared to the first book though, the plot of this one felt a little more scattered and choppy. I know I said that I felt prepared to tackle the sequel, but now I have to wonder: Was I? The ending of the First Light really blew me away. It was hard to fathom anything else that could surpass it or even match it. I was right, in a way; the ending of The Trials was pretty intense, but it didn’t quite beat the first installment when it came to shock factor and emotional impact.
Another thing that I didn’t notice in First Light but bothered me here was the main character. It’s no secret that Shelley is impulsive and likes to be in charge (it’s emphasized multiple times in this book, mentioned by other characters and even admitted by the protagonist) but in portraying him in this light, I think the author may have done her job a little too well. So many times, I found myself fed up with Shelley and his attitude. He was insufferable when he was getting in Jaynie Vasquez’s face, while she was his commanding officer, even as he acknowledged that he was not in the best position to lead. I also didn’t like the fact he became romantically involved with Delphi so quickly, despite what she meant to him. I realize Shelley’s skullnet can dampen painful emotions and stabilize them to an extent – but I still hadn’t gotten over what happened at the end of the first book, and seeing Shelley blithely moving on made me like him a bit less. This is something that goes beyond simple urges and impulses.
Audiobook comments: The feelings I had about the audiobook version of First Light applies here too. Kevin T. Collins is a good narrator, very enthusiastic and full of energy which is important for a fast-paced, highly charged series like The Red. There were a couple slips where he uses the wrong voice for a character who is speaking, but overall his performance was very satisfactory.
Final thoughts: The Trials was a great sequel, but doesn’t supplant First Light as my favorite book of the series so far – certainly not for the lack of trying though! I’m looking forward to the third book, Going Dark, which will be out later this fall. I’ll most likely listen to the audiobook too, because I’ve been really enjoying these books in this format. Sure gets the blood pumping....more
Cyberpunk and I don’t always make the best bedfellows, but when I read the description to Crashing Heaven I just knew I had to check it out. Published in the UK, I’d initially decided to either get it shipped from overseas or wait patiently to see if it’ll eventually get a release date this side of the Atlantic. To my happy surprise though, I later discovered on the publisher website that it was actually available in the US in audio format. I very excitedly requested a review copy.
What I got was exactly what the description promised, a novel that hits relentlessly hard, fast and without mercy. I could sense the influence of William Gibson and classic cyberpunk in its bleak narrative about a future of an abandoned Earth, AI wars, and people living in augmented reality. After spending years in prison, protagonist Jack Forster is a soldier who returns home with two things: a reputation as a traitor for surrendering to the Totality, and a virtual puppet named Hugo Fist tethered to his mind. Designed as a weapon to fight the enemy, Fist is a combat-AI which would eventually expire and take Jack’s personality and effectively his life with it.
All Jack wants to do is to clear his name, but upon his return to Station, he discovers that while he was away, two of his old friends have met with suspicious deaths. One of them is a former lover, spurring Jack to get to the bottom of this mystery and find those responsible before his time runs out.
The story can be a bit confusing, though to be fair, I have a history of being frustrated with cyberpunk. While Crashing Heaven may be a much easier read than a lot of other books in the genre, I still found many of its ideas abstract and hard to follow, such as trying to imagine Fist as a puppet that mostly exists inside Jack’s head but which can also be “pulled” out to manifest in a form similar to that of a ventriloquist dummy. The writing is also rough in places and not always sufficient when it comes to giving descriptions, which added to my difficulty.
However, I was also impressed by a lot of ideas in this book. Using Fist as an example again, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that such an innocuous-looking puppet can also be such a deadly weapon, with one hell of a potty-mouth on him to boot. The world is a rich tableau of both wonder and bleakness, where myth mixes with virtual reality. Mysterious entities worshipped as gods walk among the populace and grant favor to the faithful. The dead can return in “Fetches”, bodies housing the memories of the departed so that the living can spend more time with those who have passed on. Almost every aspect of the world-building is multi-faceted and gave me a lot to think about.
Still, probably my favorite part about the book is the relationship between Jack and Fist, the complex dynamic between them and the way it evolves as the story progresses. Forever linked together, the nature of their interactions range from the humorous to the grotesque. You can never predict what Fist might say or do next, which might be exasperating for Jack but it works great for a reader watching these exchanges play out. They inject a fait bit of lightness to this otherwise gritty and despairing story.
Narrator Thomas Judd can also be credited for making the Jack-and-Fist alliance the highlight of this audiobook. His performance was overall decent but nothing too remarkable – except for one thing: his Fist voice. It was perfect. It also helped a lot, considering how much of the book is made up of Jack and Fist going back and forth in conversation.
Apart from a few flaws, Crashing Heaven was a good book. The writing may be awkward at times and the plot is convoluted in places, but the entertainment value in the story makes up for that. Furthermore, dedicated fans of cyberpunk will probably like this even more than I did, so if you love the genre, definitely consider checking out Al Robertson’s unique debut....more
For a long time I’ve wanted to read something by Karen Lord, so I was excited when I was given the opportunity to review the audiobook of The Galaxy Game. This latest novel by Lord sounded very promising, featuring a compelling blurb that teases a fascinating premise and hints at some action. Thus I admit I went into it with high expectations, but regretfully came out of the experience feeling rather underwhelmed.
I also feel that I should state that The Galaxy Game is a sequel, which I did not realize until I was about half way through the book. It probably would have eased some of the initial confusion, but I still don’t believe it’s entirely necessary to have read the first book The Best of all Possible Worlds before reading this because I was able to piece together a bit of what happened and follow the main story without too many problems. Plus, while it’s true I might have gotten more out of the story if I’d read book one, doing so still probably wouldn’t have negated some of my issues with this novel’s structure or stylistic choices.
In the book we’re introduced to Rafi Delarua, a teenager who is all but imprisoned in a place called the Lyceum which is a school for young people with psi powers. In a society that deeply mistrusts psionically gifted individuals, Rafi has to endure the education and various treatments designed to control those like him. It doesn’t help either that his father’s unethical use of his powers has left Rafi and his family a legacy of disgrace.
Rafi knows it would have been different if he had lived on the planet of Punartam, where psi abilities would be seen as the norm. So the first chance he gets, he escapes the Lyceum and makes his way there. Punartam also happens to be the home of wallrunning – his favorite sport. With the help of his friend, Rafi manages to find a way to not only play but also to train with the best players. Coming here didn’t mean the end of all his problems, however. There are new deals taking place, changes happening in the dynamics between civilizations in the galaxy. Learning how to integrate into a new society is challenging enough, but now Rafi finds out he will also have a role to play in the coming political storm.
It actually sounds more dramatic than it is. While I wouldn’t call this book dull, it did feel like a considerable amount of time was given to explanations of societal themes and classifications. Like I said, if I had read The Best of All Possible Worlds I might not have felt so lost, but regardless, I don’t typically mind putting in time to familiarize myself with a story’s setting. I didn’t even have a problem with the instances where I had to listen to a few sections of the audiobook over again to ensure I understood the significance of certain details. Lord has actually created a very unique and robust world here, which I really enjoyed. No, my struggles with this book had less to do with the deluge of information at the beginning (though it did make for a rough start) and more to do with the bizarre switches in narrative voice and points-of-view, as well as jumps in the plot.
In some ways, listening to the audiobook alleviated this problem. Narrator Robin Miles’ voice work is really impressive here, especially when it comes to her talent with accents. The result is that it didn’t matter how many times we switched POVs, Miles’ use of different voices made it immediately clear to me which character we were supposed to be following, saving me the time to figure it out. The convoluted plot, however, was another matter. This isn’t a light tale to begin with, and the exposition further weighs things down. The story also takes its time to get going, so some soldiering on is required to get to get to the part where it begins to find its stride, which is quite a bit to ask of readers (or listeners, in this case).
One final thing: I wish there had been more wallrunning. What we get in here does not make the sport sound as exciting as it should, also perhaps because it is so difficult to visualize what the players are doing. Rather than getting me pumped up, the action scenes instead made me feel bewildered and out of my depth.
All told, The Galaxy Game was not what I expected. In spite of a fascinating world, I wish there had been more substance to the characters and plot. Narrator Robin Miles did an excellent job, but even her fabulous performance could not resolve the flaws I found that were inherent to the story. However, I think I would have struggled even more with this book if I had read it in its print form. If I had known ahead of time that this was a sequel, I probably would have started with The Best of All Possible Worlds as my first Karen Lord book, and not least because it is book number one – it also appears that the consensus from those who have read both books is that The Galaxy Game was not as strong as its predecessor. When I read that one I will most likely seek out the audio version as well, especially since Robin Miles is also the narrator, and I expect the experience will be more positive....more
If ever you hear someone say women can’t write military science fiction, please do me a favor and smack them over the head with this book. First Light is the excellent, smart, and action-packed introduction to The Red series, originally indie-published but re-released again recently by a major publisher along with an audiobook – because it is JUST. THAT. GOOD.
Seriously, it doesn’t get more edge-of-your-seat than this near-future thriller, which seamlessly blends advanced technology and military action with political drama. In First Light, readers get to meet protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley in an explosive introduction. Stationed in a remote military outpost deep in the Sahel, Shelley and his team work round-the-clock to enforce the peace and gather intelligence in the area, aided by a cyber-framework that keeps them all wirelessly linked. But that was all before the devastating airstrike.
Shelley barely makes it out alive, saved by the mysterious power of precognition that he possesses, a phenomenon not even the top military scientists can explain. The attack, however, had cost him both his legs, forcing Shelley to agree to an experimental cybernetics program involving synthetic legs and a permanent monitoring “skullcap” implanted in his head. Very Robocop-ish stuff. While recovering, Shelley is hit with another whammy: all throughout his assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa, he and his team had been recorded for a reality TV show. The lines begin to blur for Shelley as tough questions come to the surface. What is real and what is artificial? Who or what is this voice in his head, and is it as benign as it wants him to think? Hidden forces are steering humanity towards an unknown agenda, and for whatever reason, Shelley is at the center of this storm.
There’s so much happening in this first volume, sometimes it gets hard to tease apart the threads. The story’s first act transports readers to its not-too-distant future, describing the soldiers and their state-of-the-art military tech which includes everything from combat armor to surveillance drones. Shelley and his team are hooked into the central intelligence network at all times, physiologically and mentally monitored and even altered by their gear. A process even kicks in for soldiers on the same squad which makes them regard each other as close as siblings, encouraging familial bonds of loyalty while at the same time removing distractions which might be caused by any sexual desire.
But the technology is also far from perfect. It is not uncommon for soldiers like Shelley to become “emo-junkies”, becoming overly dependent on the processes of the skullcaps they wear. You can never be sure whether or not the emotions you feel are really yours, or if they are being controlled or altered by the skullnet. This question of “what’s real vs. what’s not” is a recurring theme that pops up throughout the novel, in many different contexts. War is also introduced as something prevalent and inevitable, a powerful driving force behind the economy. Soldiers are treated like property in this world where reality TV shows can be made of their lives without them even knowing about it, while rich CEOs of big defense contractors play games of political chance using the world as their game board.
This is actually a major premise in the second half of the novel, broadening the scope of the story to tackle conflicts with more significant and far-reaching consequences. The sequence of events that make up the climax and the ending of this book had to be one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with an audiobook. My heart was pounding the whole time as I listened, and you probably couldn’t have convinced me to take off my headphones even if the house was on fire.
I only have a minor gripe specific to the audiobook, and it is related to the narrator. Kevin T. Collins’ performance was good, and I love his enthusiasm. But this also means he sometimes overacts, his voice bordering on frantic. Good for when we’re in those tense scenes, but very distracting when we’re not.
Nevertheless, this book has my full recommendation, especially for fans of military science fiction. It’s certainly the best of this genre that I’ve read in a good long while. First Light is engaging, intelligent, and full of thrills. It’s been getting all kinds of attention lately, and now I understand why....more
This was a great book. And the only reason I’m not rating it higher is because I’ve read better from Paolo Bacigalupi. If I had read this a few years ago, I think I would have enjoyed it unconditionally, but of course that’s not what happened. Instead, I read The Water Knife earlier this year and loved it, and as I usually do when I read an amazing new book by an author I’ve never read before, I went and picked up a bunch of Bacigalupi’s older titles. I decided to read The Windup Girl first, his multiple-award winning debut that shot him to stardom, and figured too that it was the perfect choice to review for Backlist Burndown.
The book takes place in 23rd century Thailand in a world ravaged by increasing temperatures and rising sea levels. Frequent disasters, both natural and manmade, cause widespread devastation to crops and human populations. Humanity is now dependent on biotechnology for food production, and megacorporations control the market using their own genetically modified seeds, which have all but replaced the natural order. The capital city of Bangkok only survives due to technology, and would be underwater if not for the levees that hold back the flood.
The story features multiple POVs. Major characters include Anderson Lake, a Calorie Man for the megacorp AgriGen, a sort of economic hitman sent to work undercover at a factory in Thailand. It is a front for his real mission, to search Bangkok’s street markets for produce thought to be extinct in order to discover the location of the Thai seedbank. Anderson leaves the running of the factory to his manager, Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee who was a businessman in his former life in Malaysia before being exiled from the country. Seng plots against Anderson, embezzling from the company while planning to steal secret designs and documents from his boss.
Then there’s Emiko, a “Windup Girl”. She is a genetically engineered being, and not human in the strictest sense, due to all the different modifications to her DNA. Windups are made to be docile slaves, programmed to obey. Abandoned by her Japanese master, Emiko lives a dangerous life in Thailand, because she would be destroyed if caught. She is forced to put up with sexual abuse and humiliation at the club where she works, in exchange for a measure of protection against the Thai government. She dreams of a day when she can finally buy her freedom and leave this place forever for a refuge in the north.
What I found interesting are the many similarities The Water Knife had to The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi seems to fancy writing dystopian science fiction about humans screwing up the future of the world. Both stories feature a shortage of vital resources, their supplies controlled by megacorporations or corrupt authorities. Both books even have a corporate hitman/mercenary-type character in a main role. So, perhaps comparisons between my experiences with his latest novel versus my experience with his first novel were going to be inevitable.
First, there’s the realistic premise, an important factor that makes all the difference. For me, dystopian novels tend to be more impactful when they take the form of cautionary tales or commentary on current issues, given how much easier it is to imagine them really happening. I also spent a part of my childhood in Bangkok, so reading this story also had a strong effect on me in more ways than one.
There are some unpleasant and difficult themes to deal with as well. Bacigalupi’s novels are certainly not happy stories. Characters in The Windup Girl live in a grim and very brutal world, and many are subject to discrimination, violence and other kinds of abuse. Emiko, the book’s titular character is especially subjected to the worst kind of treatment – rejected, beaten, raped, tortured, hated – all because of what she is and what she represents. Created to be nothing more than a toy for the wealthy, Emiko is helpless to control her situation or even her own actions because of her genetic modifications.
As well-written as this was, the author has certainly come a long way since his debut novel. The Windup Girl is a fascinating and engaging tale. Compared to The Water Knife though, it’s not nearly as well-plotted or polished. I sensed that Bacigalupi’s storytelling was still outpaced by his imagination at this point, in part due to the uneven pacing as well as the unexpected turn of events in the last quarter of the book. I can’t say I’m too fond of the last 100 or so pages; what should have been a ramp up to a killer conclusion instead had me fighting to keep my interest, but for all that, I still thought this was a great read....more
In this day and age where one can’t even walk into a bookstore’s sci-fi section without a few dozen dystopian titles getting thrown in your face, I have to say Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife really impacted me in a big way. It put me in mind of an eccentric high school teacher I once had, who was a little obsessed with doomsday scenarios. He used to be fond of saying that if the civilizations were to crumble or if the whole world were to go to war, it wouldn’t be over things like a pandemic or nuclear war. No, it would be for water – fresh, drinkable water without which none of us can survive.
Indeed, Bacigalupi paints a rather bleak, hellish picture of a place where water is scarce and more valuable than gold, a resource for which people are willing to kill and destroy. Drought has ravaged the American Southwest, changing the physical and political landscape. States like Nevada and Arizona clash viciously over shares of the Colorado River while bigwig California looks on, and states like Texas and New Mexico have long since given up the ghost. Las Vegas employs mercenaries like Angel Velasquez as “Water Knives”, hired to “cut” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case. This ensures continued survival for her lush arcology developments in the hot desert, where the rich luxuriate in cushy comfort while elsewhere cities like Phoenix dry up and stagnate for lack of water.
This book follows Angel as he travels to Phoenix to investigate rumors of a new water source for his boss. The story is told through two other perspectives, including a journalist named Lucy Monroe, as well as a young Texan refugee named Maria Villarosa. Desperate and destitute folk like Maria are struggling to make a living in the city while dreaming of one day having enough money to escape north. Lucy, on the other hand, could have left any time she pleased, but years of living in Phoenix has led her to adopt it as her home, and you get a sense that she’d do what she can to try to help the city. When it appears that California is finally making its move to monopolize the river, Angel, Lucy and Maria end up coming together in a precarious alliance to stop a conspiracy and secure a future for the people of Phoenix.
There are many unsettling themes in this book, and not least of all because the scarcity of potable water is a reality for many people in the world. Talk of droughts in California and in the American Southwest in the news today makes The Water Knife seem less like science fiction and more like a commentary on current issues. If seeing pictures of the immaculate green lawns and freshly filled-pools of the rich and famous during a drought make your blood boil, then this book will take that fury to a whole new level. It’s really hard to read about this divided America where characters like Maria were driven out of Texas after their water got shut off, only to be treated like interlopers when they have no choice but to migrate to Arizona. Girls like Maria’s friend Sarah turn to prostitution as a last resort, servicing those wealthy corporate types for whom a single shower may use up more water than a poor person in Phoenix might see in an entire week. Then to rub salt in the wound, the girls’ money gets taken away by the local gangsters, never allowing anyone a fair shot to work themselves out of this nightmarish situation. There’s a lot in this book that’s hard to take.
It’s also heavy on graphic violence, descriptions of torture both during and after the act, and generally features many scenes of groups of people doing terrible, unspeakable things to other groups of people. If you are squeamish about such things, you should probably go in prepared to read some pretty sick stuff. To the book’s credit, while there’s certainly no shortage of examples in here when it comes humanity’s lowest moments, there are nonetheless many instances of characters stepping up to show an extraordinary amount of bravery and compassion. Despite being categorized as a sci-fi thriller, The Water Knife is also a very human story, where characters are intimately touched by plot events as well as the lives of other people.
The book isn’t exactly a light read, even in the audiobook format I listened to, with its heavy themes and also some parts which are quite drawn out with descriptions. But for all their lengthiness, I think I have these sections to thank for making the world of The Water Knife one of the most detailed and fleshed out dystopians I’ve read. Southwestern America has reverted back to a kind of wildness, a melting pot of disparate rhythms and cultures where Red Cross aid workers, rich Chinese businessmen, underworld crooks, poverty-stricken refugees, sensationalist media journalists, religious evangelists, and dangerous mercenaries all commingled together in a dying city. This also makes the audiobook of The Water Knife worth experiencing, as narrator Almarie Guerra delivers a performance filled with a great variety of accents and voices, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.
This is the first book by Paolo Bacigalupi I’ve ever read, but if this is the kind of originality and well-rounded quality I can expect from his writing, it certainly won’t be the last. I really enjoyed The Water Knife, and I look forward to checking out the author’s previous work as well as his future books.
I was actually first introduced to Departure as an audio title (given how often I browse for interesting new titles to listen to, it was pretty hard to miss how often it popped up on the popular science fiction and fantasy audiobook lists). What I didn’t know, was that the book itself was originally self-published. The news of its success must have caught on though, because I just learned recently too that HarperCollins has bought it and will be re-releasing it later this year. Runaway hits like that often have a way of catching my attention, so my curiosity probably got the better of me when I decided to check this one out.
The story begins with the crash of a passenger plane on route to London from New York. Flight 305 ends up somewhere in the English countryside, its fuselage split in two. In spite of this, there are actually quite a few survivors, most of them from first class because their half of the plane went into the trees while the tail section went into a nearby lake. As the survivors treat the wounded and fight to save as many lives as they can, they soon realize that they have crashed into a very different world. Rescue might be a long time coming. If ever.
There’s not much more I say about the story without spoiling it, but suffice to say, the Lost vibes are strong with this one. If you enjoy mind-bending sci-fi thrillers with a slight touch of creepy mystery, you should give this one a look. On the other hand, if you were looking forward to more of a survival adventure, you’ll probably want to alter your expectations like I did. As someone with a fear of flying, I was really nervous and bracing myself for a heart-pounding intro, but what I ended up getting was barely a notch above suspenseful. After the first quarter of this book, the emphasis also rapidly shifts to the bigger conspiracy.
The focus mainly falls on five passengers: Harper Lane writes biographies for a living, but her real dream is to writer her own series of adventure novels one day; Nick Stone is an American businessman, on his way to a meeting with The Gibraltar Project to discuss the building of a dam in the Mediterranean; Sabrina Schröder is a German medical scientist, making her the best choice to care for the wounded crash victims even though most of her experience was in a lab; Yul Tan, a Chinese-American computer scientist, has just developed a quantum internet capable of transmitting more data farther and faster than anything seen before; Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire philanthropist, is struggling with alcohol problems after finding out some news about his father.
Unbeknownst to any of them, these five characters are all connected in some way and may hold the clues to the reason why their plane crashed, not to mention an answer to where they’ve ended up. The details are gradually revealed as the events unravel, and it was a captivating journey to discover the truth – even in spite of the many confusing moments along the way. To be honest, this book ventured a little too far into hard sci-fi territory for me to feel truly comfortable, and even though I was able to follow the plot just fine, a lot of the themes that came up later in the book are just not topics I find interesting. Be that as it may, I didn’t actually dislike this book; I found most of the story very enjoyable in fact, and even liked how it ended (as opposed to how I felt about Lost!) but it’s difficult to ignore the technology aspects that I personally couldn’t get into.
As for my thoughts that are specific to the audio version, I’m always happy listening to multi-narrator books and I thought both Nicola Barber and Scott Aiello delivered excellent performances. They portrayed Harper and Nick respectively, and voiced their own characters’ dialogue even when they were in the other character’s perspectives, giving this audiobook a quasi full-cast feel without it actually being a full-cast production. With their natural performances, the two narrators also made a lot of the dialogue sound a lot less awkward than the way it probably looked on paper.
In truth, I don’t think I would have fared as well reading the print version of this, given the propensity for my eyes to glaze over when they come upon pages of technobabble, especially when they have to do with subjects like the quantum theories of time travel. My brain has a better time when this stuff is read to me, so I was quite happy with my decision to listen to Departure in audio format. This is a book I might have enjoyed more if it had been the survival adventure I expected, but all told it’s a pretty solid book with a story that will no doubt appeal more to sci-fi thriller fans who also enjoy some conspiracy with their mystery....more
Probably the best Star Wars novel I’ve read in a while, and certainly one of the better Star Wars novels I’ve ever read, Lords of the Sith is a story centered on Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. Defiant against the Imperial forces’ attempts to control their home planet of Ryloth, a group of Twi’leks led by Cham Syndulla the idealistic freedom fighter (and the father of Hera, of Star Wars Rebel fame) plot to bring the Empire to its knees by assassinating the two Sith Lords. What amazes me is that even though we all know the rebels’ efforts are doomed to fail, Paul S. Kemp valiantly manages to keep the suspense up throughout the entire story.
I’m also impressed at the moments we get inside Darth Vader’s head. If you’re a fan of the character, picking this novel up is a no-brainer. The story examines the Sith mentor and apprentice relationship, and does it very well. Vader, portrayed as utterly loyal to Palpatine, is nonetheless not immune to his momentary lapses and brief, emotional flashbacks to the past. Yes, he’s evil. Yes, he’s badass. And unfortunately, that’s the side of him the majority of Star Wars stories like to focus on. But everyone knows Vader is also a lot more complex than most writers give him credit for, and I feel like this might be the first Star Wars book I’ve read that actually does his character justice. Kemp strikes a fine balance, giving us plenty of full-on-Dark-Side force-choking Vader, but those glimpses we get of what little humanity he has left also made me sympathize with his inner conflict.
And finally, if you’ve ever listened to a Star Wars audiobook, you’d probably know that they are in another league all together, complete with sound effects and music (though it might take some getting used to if you’re easily distracted by that stuff). If you’re thinking of checking this book out, I highly recommend the audio format. I’ve heard narrator Jonathan Davis’ work on other audiobooks before, but I never knew he could do such an incredible Darth Vader voice. Short of actually getting James Earl Jones to narrate, I don’t think you can find anyone better than Davis. 5 stars to his performance....more
Imagine living in an ultra-high-tech society, so deeply ingrained in virtual reality and cyberspace that all the actions you make are logged and billed for. Every time you blink, breathe a sigh, shout a swear word, grit your teeth, kiss a loved one, or even just relax in a resting position of your choice – all that information is being recorded into the BodyBank, a computer system implanted in each of our bodies. All your movements are monitored in real time, so that the corporations who own the rights to those actions – whether it be as simple as scratching your head or as intimate as sexual intercourse – can be paid their licensing fees.
Oh, and it’s a perfect process, completely automated and indefatigable, and it doesn’t make mistakes. So don’t even think about cheating the system. You can’t.
Just as you’d expect, living in a world like this ain’t cheap. People go bankrupt or “cash crash” every day, caught unawares by their expensive habits or finding themselves overwhelmed by the incurring charges on everyday actions, i.e. by simply just living. Before that can even happen though, Liquidators like our protagonist Amon Kenzaki are already waiting in the wings, ready to swoop down and capture these “discreditable” citizens, take out their BodyBank, and banish them to BankDeath Camps where they are forever removed from the economy and disconnected from the ImmaNet, a three-dimensional audio-visual overlay that would normally replace our perceptions of the mundane world.
Your life is virtually over if you cash crash, basically.
As someone who knows better than most exactly how this system works, Amon himself lives an extraordinarily frugal life. He scrimps and saves in whatever ways he can, typing messages in nigh indecipherable script so that he doesn’t get charged for using licensed words, even going as far as taking instructional courses on how to blink less or breathe less. His attention to details does not go unnoticed by his superiors, who inform Amon that he is being considered for a promotion. Everything is going well, until one day, Amon notices an incredibly expensive charge called “jubilee” on his BodyBank account, an action he is completely unfamiliar with and is sure he did not perform. But how could this be? After all, the system doesn’t make mistakes.
The whole story behind Cash Crash Jubilee could almost be humorous if it weren’t also so damn scary. Eli K. P. William does a fantastic job here creating his vision of a futuristic Tokyo, a cyber-dystopian society at its most extreme. Apparently it’s not enough just to watch our every move, but they’ve found a way to make it profitable too. Everyone is so obsessed with technology and corporate branding that almost every shred of humanity and emotion has gone out the window. The concept of Free Will has been distorted, for it is not free will at all if you have to think and calculate the cost of every action before deciding to perform it.
On the other hand, might it be possible to find a sliver of a positive side to this gloomy situation? Citizens are probably less likely to do and say things they would regret, if they have to stop to think twice before actually doing it, versus simply acting on impulse. How many wayward spouses might we see, for example, if a pre-nup in your BodyBank authorizes an automatic and immediate transfer of half or all of your funds to your other half the moment you commit infidelity?
Yeah, probably not a lot, is my guess.
Cash Crash Jubilee is utterly fascinating, from cover to cover. The premise is disconcerting, with details that sometimes bordered on the absurd, but it did make me think. Nothing delights me more than a book that gets my brain juices flowing, and I could even overlook the slow introduction to this story, simply because I found myself so completely absorbed in the sights and sounds of William’s dystopic Tokyo. It’s a trove of insanity and wonder, all in one place.
You might also recall a while ago in another review, I wrote about my feelings on cyberpunk. As a subgenre of sci-fi, I’ve definitely experienced more misses than hits when it comes to recent offerings. When I looked at Cash Crash Jubilee though, I saw a very different kind of cyberpunk. The author uses a lot of familiar elements in this story, but the way he rendered the ideas made them unique and stand out. And rather than going through my usual mental gymnastics trying to piece together all the abstract concepts commonly found in this genre, I found William’s descriptions of the ImmaNet overlays extremely intricate and detailed, but at the same time also very easy to visualize. The mystery plot was genuinely interesting, with the suspense and action in all the right places.
In short? This one scored a major hit in my books. It deserves a lot more attention, let’s hope it gets it.
All told, Cash Crash Jubilee is eye-opening, eyebrow-raising, grip-the-edge-of-your-seat read. Good thing I don’t live in Amon Kenzaki’s world, because if I had been charged for all the times I made those actions, I’m pretty sure I’d be bankrupt many times over by now....more
Mother of Eden certainly wasn’t a bad book, not bad at all. Still, I have to say it’s a far cry from the first book, which I absolutely adored.
First, it’s important to know that Mother of Eden isn’t exactly a direct follow-up to Dark Eden, taking place roughly five or six generations in the future. Be aware that if you are thinking of reading it as a stand-alone though, you’ll miss out on a lot of the background information in the first book. Remember how I’d ended my review of Dark Eden with the theory that characters like John Redlantern, Tina, Gerry and Jeff would eventually become the stuff of legends to their descendants, much like how “First Couple” Angela and Tommy became revered by Family? Turns out that is exactly the case, so it wouldn’t hurt to be familiar with the events of book one.
Still, the world of Eden has changed a lot since John Redlantern first destroyed Circle of Stones and took his supporters away from Circle Valley and over Snowy Dark. There are now thousands of humans living across the planet, divided into two main groups: Johnfolk, those who were descended from John and his followers; and Davidfolk, descendants of those who remained with the original Family led by David, John’s greatest rival. There are quite a few offshoot populations as well, and our protagonist Starlight Brooking is a young woman from one such tribe, a member of the Kneetree Folk who live on a tiny island far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Eden.
But Starlight has always wanted something more out of her life than just catching fish and making boats. She convinces her uncle, brother and a couple friends one day to travel with her to Veeklehouse, a kind of trading port where many of Eden’s tribes converge to buy and sell their goods. There she meets handsome Greenstone Johnson, a Johnsfolk man from across Greatpool who came in his colorful wraps and mighty sail boats to trade his shiny metal. Greenstone is drawn to Starlight right away and asks her to return with him to his home of Edenheart, and sensing her chance for a great adventure, she agrees. After all, Greenstone isn’t just a descendent of John, he’s the great-great-grandson of John himself, and is a prince of sorts among his people. Starlight is even more excited when she discovers that as Greenstone’s “Housewoman”, she’ll get to wear the legendary Gela’s Ring and take on the mantle of Mother of Eden.
As she soon discovers though, living in Greenstone’s home of New Earth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, life is downright unpleasant if you’re not one of the “Big People”, and even “Small People” make themselves feel bigger by pressing semi-intelligent creatures into slave labor. If you’re a Batface or have any other type of physical or mental deformity, you’re immediately relegated to the lowest rungs of society and it’s the metal digs for you! Greenstone himself isn’t a bad guy, but his father the Headman as well as Edenheart’s Chiefs and Teachers will throw you to the Fire if your beliefs deviate from the “correct” version of history, and if you’re a woman you’ll have no say in how Edenheart is run because your opinion means nothing.
This is how Starlight quickly realizes that even though she is the Ringwearer and the beloved Mother of Eden, she actually holds little to no power at all. And that is NOT all right with her, and neither are all of New Earth’s injustices. Starlight’s character is probably my favorite part of this book; she plays a similar role to John Redlantern’s from the first book, but for one key difference to me: while both John and Starlight are initiative-taking people who are constantly seeking something more, John sought glory only for himself, versus Starlight whose ultimate goal was to better the lives of others. Huge respect. I found myself rooting for her every step of the way.
Now for the book’s not-so-great parts. Like Dark Eden, it carries on its commentary on the evolution of civilization and culture, language, religion, etc. But whereas the social-fiction elements in the first book were more understated and nuanced, Mother of Eden has a clear message and it is delivered with the subtlety and grace of a wrecking ball. Never mind that I agreed with and admired Starlight for everything she tries to do for New Earth, like fighting to give better quality-of-life for Small People and a voice to women, or the fact that I loved this book for its heartfelt attempt to honor the role of motherhood and the power of a mother’s love. All that’s fine and good but only when it doesn’t affect the quality of writing or give rise to frequent character actions and dialogue choices that feel incredibly awkward or out-of-place. Too bad that in this case, I felt it did.
My biggest problem with Mother of Eden though was the ending. Even if I hadn’t found it unsatisfying – and it really was off-putting – I still probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it. The thing is, “unsatisfying” endings I can live with, but “incomplete” is a whole other matter. Unfortunately, everything after the climax felt rushed and not entirely all there, with multiple skips of varying degrees in time and a lot of important events happening off the page. Up until that point, the author had more or less kept us in the loop with what’s happening across multiple locations by giving us a wide range of character perspectives. But when it came to the ending where it really mattered, the scope narrowed so much that I was left wondering what happened to a major character, whose fate was only then mentioned in passing in one of the final chapters in Afterwords section (and I felt that character totally deserved to be handled better than that).
Maybe a sequel to Dark Eden really wasn’t needed, but nevertheless I’m not sorry I read the book. It was fascinating to see what Eden has become. If Chris Beckett were to write a third Eden book I would likely still read it. Hopefully it would redeem that disheartening ending....more
The Gabble and Other Stories is a collection of short fiction set in the universe of the Polity series by Neal Asher. I’ve been curious about his books for a long time now, especially since his work has been described as being close to Splatterpunk, a sub-genre often characterized by its depiction of gory graphic violence, fast-paced action, and a tendency to push the boundaries especially in horror-themed sci-fi.
I was not disappointed! Indeed, The Gabble ended up being a lot of fun and I enjoyed a lot of the stories in here. Being an anthology, I also went with the assumption that this book would work well as a stand-alone read, and thus a good place to jump on board. I think for the most part my instinct was correct, though I do have more to add to this. I will go into the details below in my in-depth analysis of each story, but I did notice a couple trends in my overall experience:
1) My favorite stories tended to be shorter ones, while the longer novelettes are perhaps too steeped in the Polity lore for me to get into as easily.
2) If the main focus of a story is aliens or alien culture, there’s a good chance I loved it!
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Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck – 4 of 5 stars A pair of incestuous siblings hires a guide for a killer safari on the planet Myral in this adventure tale that ends in terror as a Gabbleduck appears through the mist and hunts them in return. Honestly, you couldn’t have found a better opener for this book of short stories. The Gabbleduck is of course the creature featured on the cover, a cool and scary looking thing with too many limbs and a duck-bill like mouth full of sharp teeth. Its comical appearance belies its deadly predatory tendencies, and should at once tell you the kind of weirdness you’re in for. Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck is a fantastic introduction to this anthology, to Neal Asher’s writing style, to his world of Polity, to the eponymous alien, and heck, just to everything! I wish more of the stories were like this one.
Putrefactors – 5 of 5 stars A bounty arrives on a planet to kill his target and instead uncovers a corrupt plot that spells dire consequences for the colonists there. By the time he realizes he himself is caught up in the conspiracy’s net, it is too late. Hands down, this was my favorite story in this collection. It was totally awesome, featuring concepts that will leave you feeling disgusted and truly horrified. Not to mention, I will never look at the phrase “a good friend” the same way again.
Garp and Geronamid – 3 of 5 stars Garp is a former policeman and a reification, a corpse kept alive through advanced tech because he simply could not stop doing his job even after his death. Geronamid is an AI, who in this particular story is implanted into a body of an allosaur. Yes, you read that right. An allosaur. Fascinating ideas in this very cool story, but the heavy involvement of things like politics and the underworld drug trade made this one harder for me to follow. It’s got some great twists and turns though, and a sensational finish.
The Sea of Death – 3 of 5 stars Two characters discuss the millions of frozen sarcophagi found below the surface of Orbus, each filled with the remains of aliens that bear some resemblance to humans. This is one of the shorter stories in this collection and can truly be read as a standalone, albeit it is not very exciting and ends quite abruptly. Not bad, but with such an interesting premise, I’d hoped for a bit more.
Alien Archaeology – 2.5 of 5 stars Another tale featuring the Gabbleduck, Alien Archaeology is a novella – and therefore the longest story in this collection – that greatly expands our understanding into the history of alien life on the many worlds of Polity. But what should have been an exciting plot and engaging experience instead left me feeling cold. I could barely keep myself focused while reading, and felt no connection to the characters. The title and some of the mildly cyberpunkish themes of the story intrigued me, as well as the idea that Gabbleducks are actually the “devolved” descendants of the Atheter race. But I just couldn’t get into it. I can definitely see someone who is more familiar with the Polity universe or Neal Asher’s work liking this one way more than I did, though.
Acephalous Dreams – 2.5 of 5 stars Another story featuring the A.I. Geronamid. After the discovery of a Csorian node, a death row prisoner is offered the chance to clear his sentence if he agrees to test drive the device. Having a bit of alien brain implanted in your head versus execution…should have been an easy choice, right? This is another story that should have been awesome, but again it didn’t quite grab me. I liked it, but with such an ambitious plot, I think this one would have worked better given more pages to develop. I might have enjoyed it even more if it had been a full-length novel.
Snow in the Desert – 4 of 5 stars Snow is an albino living in the desert…and everyone wants his balls. Literally! His unique DNA means that he has an exorbitant bounty placed on his testicles. While everyone is hunting him, Snow does what he can to survive the numerous attempts on his life as well as the dangerous conditions of his hot, arid planet. I really liked the crazy, over-the-top premise and nature of this offering. A fun and action-packed novelette.
Choudapt – 3.5 of 5 stars Perhaps a cautionary tale into the dangers of mixing alien DNA just to gain an edge. We venture a little into horror territory here. Truly terrifying. Truly enjoyable. Don’t want say anything more than that for fear of spoilers.
Adaptogenic – 3 of 5 stars It all began with an auction. Two relic hunters go searching for a missing piece of a puzzle, and their efforts land them on a strange planet at the worst time possible. An enjoyable yarn, but not the most memorable. I had to go back to the book to remind myself what happened because I hardly remembered the nitty-gritty details of it, especially since some of the better stories have already gone ahead and the bar to impress me now is set pretty high at this point. Not bad though, and I don’t remember disliking the story when I read it.
The Gabble – 4 of 5 stars We end the same way as we began – with a Gabbleduck! Researchers want to uncover the secrets behind these mysterious and frightful beings. Like Alien Archaeology, this story reveals a little more about the history and connections between different species, especially when it comes to Gabbleducks and Hooders. The Gabble is a great closer for this collection, wrapping things up with a solid tale that ties together threads introduced in some of the previous stories in this book. It’s not an overly powerful or profound offering, but it cuts deeply all the same, making it an apt conclusion.
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On the whole, this is a great collection. Like all anthologies, it has its ups and downs, i.e. some stories are better than others. I’m admittedly not a big reader of short fiction because I so often find stories to be too short (“I want more character development! More world building!”) or too long (“Wait, what’s going on? Am I supposed to understand this part? But I haven’t read the original series, there’s just too much I don’t know here!” etc., etc.) My experience with The Gabble was not so different, but I did enjoy myself more than I expected.
I think this is a decent place to start if you’re curious about Neal Asher’s work and want to give it a try, or if you want just a taste of what Polity has to offer before taking the full plunge. Being new to this universe, I have to say I was pretty impressed, and if you’re already familiar with Asher’s Polity series, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. My interest is certainly piqued; I might have to check out his other books now....more
How do I know when a book has got its hooks in me? I read the digital ARC of Zero World from NetGalley which actually ends at 78% with the rest of it being bonus material. Of course, I had no idea of this going in and didn’t find out until I hit the Acknowledgements page. Having expected this unbelievably gripping story to go on for about a hundred more pages – then having that expectation cruelly ripped away from me – my resounding wail of “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” probably could have been heard from all the way down the street. As you can imagine.
Seriously, what can I say about this book that would do the sheer ingenuity of its premise justice? It’s like James Bond meets Memento meets an episode of Star Trek. Let’s just say the tagline of Zero World – “This will be the most interesting mission you’ll ever forget” – serves its story well, a promise of adventure and thrilling action packed into those ten simple words.
The story follows biologically enhanced secret agent Peter Caswell, who undertakes every single operation he gets with a clean conscience – literally. With the help of an implant surgically melded into his brain, he never remembers his missions; everything from dossier details to the number of people killed while he is in the field always gets thoroughly wiped from his mind upon completion. In many ways, he is the perfect superspy. And now he’s embarking on his most dangerous and secretive assignment yet, one that will take him beyond reality into another world entirely.
After passing through what appears to be a tear in the fabric of space, Caswell finds himself on an Earth eerily like his own. A lot of is the same but so much more is different, and in this alien yet familiar world, our protagonist must track and kill his quarry before irreparable damage can be done. To his surprise, Caswell receives help from an unexpected source in the form of Melni, an undercover agent on this mirror world who is also seeking the same target, but for very different reasons than his own.
If you enjoyed Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth Cycle, picking up this book is a no-brainer. This is without a doubt his most exciting and ambitious work yet. The author’s penchant for rich world building and writing about incredibly innovative tech has always impressed me, but what I love about his science fiction is the fact that it’s also so accessible. Zero World blends futuristic elements with the best parts of the spy thriller genre to great success; the story captured my attention from the get go and it never relented with its nail-biting suspense. There were some pretty huge twists around the midway point too, leading to staggering implications for the plot and the characters. Add the seemingly insurmountable obstacles for our protagonists into the equation, and you can see why this novel kept me reading well into the wee hours of the night.
The team of Caswell and Melni is also a very unique and enjoyable partnership, one in which each of their participation is refreshingly equal. It’s always interesting to read about characters from different worlds meeting for the first time and their eventual teaming up, and I had a very good time following their exploits and watching the interplay between their personalities. Melni fascinated me with her loyalty to her organization and their cause, despite being looking down upon and treated like a foreigner by her own people. Caswell is an even bigger enigma, given how integrated he is with his implants. I have to wonder, can his attitude towards the morality of his actions be simply chalked up to denial, or might it be tied up in something much bigger? Hough’s subtle probing into the complexities of the human psyche surprised me a bit here, but I liked the depth it gave to his characters.
There’s actually some irony in the fact that Peter Caswell can’t remember his missions, because I think his adventures in Zero World are sure to stick with me for a long time. Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to end, and I believe I’ve already made those feelings glaringly clear in my opening paragraph. I despaired when I turned the page and realized the book was over. Can you tell I’m desperate for the sequel? Be sure to check out this novel if you enjoy your sci-fi thrillers filled with adrenaline rushes and high-energy action sequences; I promise you won’t be disappointed....more
I’ve been dreading the thought of writing this review for a while, because I know it’s going to be a doozy. For one thing, I just know I’m going to come off sounding way more negative about this book than I mean to – which just kills me because there’s actually a lot to like here. Sadly, I just can’t talk about any of it. None at all. Yes, you heard that right; most of the good stuff is spoiler territory, so you’re all just going to have to bear with me.
You know how everyone has been saying that the less you know about Alive before going in, the better? Listen to them; they’re absolutely right. The best part about reading this book was being wrapped up in the mystery, slowly gaining more answers the farther into the story you get. However, this does make for a pretty rough beginning, and a fair bit of patience and investment is required to get to the payoff.
First of all, the book starts off sounding like it was written by a twelve-year-old. However, I’m not sure if this even counts as a criticism. Yes, it was maddening, but at the same time also very appropriate. Alive is told through the eyes of a girl who wakes up on her twelfth birthday, but she has no recollection of who she is or what her life was like before she went to sleep. She finds herself in darkness, trapped in an enclosed space that feels disturbingly like a coffin. After breaking out, she realizes something feels seriously wrong. She is supposed to be twelve, but her body looks like it should belong to someone older, like a woman in her late teens or early twenties. She then finds a plaque engraved with her name at the foot of her coffin – M. Savage.
Dubbing herself “Em”, the girl looks around the room and sees it lined with dozens more coffins like hers, but only a handful of them contain other survivors. All of them look physically like young adults, but they also say the same thing as Em – today is their twelfth birthday, and none of them can remember how they ended up in their coffins. In the end, only six of them emerged; everyone else is dead and shriveled in their receptacles or lying on the ground in piles of bone and ash. Because she was the first to break out and wake the others, Em assumes the role of leader of their little group. Now she bears the responsibility of their survival, but they’ll first have to learn to trust each other and work together if they’re all going to make it out alive.
So, probably the most trying part of the book was the first hundred pages or so. It was a little like reading Lord of the Flies except we’re in a labyrinth-like setting and the characters are all pre-teens trapped in the bodies of Abercrombie & Fitch models. Em cannot seem to go five pages without remarking on how strikingly beautiful every one of her companions are, and as a leader she keeps making one terrible decision after another. Like I said, mentally Em is only twelve years old. I’m still not sure how to judge her language, thoughts and actions when they are probably consistent with what the author thinks a tween girl should sound like. Still, I think the writing style will be the biggest hurdle for some readers, since Em also strikes me as an especially petulant and somewhat naïve child with her constant obsession to be in charge.
In spite of it all, the book grew on me. After the midway point, the story gets substantially better as we find out more about the survivors’ situation. I can’t say more without giving too much away though, which is always every book reviewer’s quandary (I’m ever striving to keep my reviews spoiler-free anyway, but in this case Scott Sigler even has a whole afterword imploring readers not to spoil anything via the internet, so I’ll take extra precautions and simply avoid talking anymore about the plot). Suffice to say, in time we do get enough information to piece together some answers. And it ends up being pretty cool.
I discovered afterward that Alive is apparently part of a series called the Generations trilogy. Even so, it could work as a self-contained novel. In light of everything that happened in this book though, I don’t think I can bring myself to stop with just one. I’m very curious to find out what will happen next, so I will most definitely pick up the sequel....more