The last couple years have seen me get a lot pickier with my choice of YA reads, the key reason being that originality is such a rare quality in the genre these days. That’s why when I first came upon the description of The Empress of a Thousand Skies, I thought it showed promise—because sometimes, it’s not what a book’s blurb says that seals the deal; it’s what it doesn’t say. Despite the synopsis being rather short and vague, I liked how it mainly focused on the roles of the characters themselves and the way these mini-profiles teased possibilities and potential.
First, we have the Empress—or soon-to-be Empress. Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, affectionately known as Rhee, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty that has ruled the galaxy for hundreds of years. Today, on her sixteenth birthday, she will come of age and return to her seat of power to take back her rule, which a regent has been holding for her in trust ever since Rhee’s parents and older sister were killed in a starship crash. Everyone called it an accident, but Rhee knows in her heart that it was not. For the last ten years she has been training and preparing for this day, the day she will be crowned Empress so she can finally take revenge on the one who orchestrated her family’s death.
However, the enemy’s reach is long and before Rhee can reach her destination, she becomes the target of a last-ditch assassination attempt. Against all odds she manages to survive, but the official word gets out that she has been killed, with the deed being pinned on a well-known reality show star. Enter Alyosha, the Fugitive. Overnight, Aly goes from being adored by fans to becoming the most wanted man in the galaxy. Now he is on the run, desperate to clear his name and find out why he has been framed. Meanwhile, Rhee teams up with an unexpected ally on her quest for the truth, and together they forge ahead with her plans to expose a Madman and to stop them from plunging the galaxy into all-out war.
So, did Empress of a Thousand Skies meet my expectations? Well…yes and no. While I had a good time with the book, it also didn’t take me long to realize the story wasn’t going to blow me away in the originality department as I’d hoped it would. Books featuring that timeworn cliché of a sole surviving royal character seeking vengeance for their murdered family are a dime a dozen, and I was really hoping Rhee’s story was going to add something more to this, but it didn’t. In fact, the entire book was rather predictable, with a plot that felt heavily formulaic and on-rails like a theme park ride you’ve been on many times before. Overall, the book’s themes and messages were commonplace and relatively bland. Even the “twists” were pretty well scripted in advance, with foreshadowing that’s so obvious that anyone paying close attention will know exactly what’s coming.
There was also this sense that the author wanted us to like her protagonist, and yet the story never failed to drive home Rhee’s many shortcomings every chance it could, with an almost cruel consistency. I wanted to root for Rhee, I really did, but the writing itself made that hard to do when it was constantly reminding me what a spoiled and sheltered princess she was, whose naiveté always steered her wrong or made her plans seem half-baked and ineffectual. Poor girl could never catch a break.
And yet, you know how there are movies you can watch over and over again without getting bored, the ones you can still enjoy even when you can recite all the lines and know when everything’s going to happen? Reading this book was a little like that. No matter how predictable the story got, I never stopped having fun with it. There was also enough to keep me interested, especially Aly’s chapters which offered a more unique point of view. And while world-building was a little lacking, there were a still a number of details that jumped out at me, such as the cool tech or the political relationships between the different cultures. It would be nice to see the next book elaborate on these areas.
For a YA novel, Empress of a Thousand Skies doesn’t bring anything terribly new to the table, but it’s still a pretty solid debut. The book was fun despite its flaws, the main ones being the story’s predictability and the weak development of the main character, but all that can be overlooked if you’re just looking for an entertaining read. It is the first of a planned duology and I am definitely planning on seeing it through to the end.
Audiobook Comments: As an audiobook, Empress of a Thousand Skies was the listening equivalent of “unputdownable”. Because their stories are relatively straightforward, I find that YA novels typically make for very fast and addictive listens, and this one was no exception. I’m also no stranger to the work of Rebecca Soler, one of my favorite audiobook narrators, having been a fan of hers since listening to her read Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series. Since she always puts everything into her performances, I couldn’t imagine Soler bringing anything but her A-game to this one, and I was right....more
I’m deeply ashamed to admit this, but I had not actually read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before picking up this anthology. From the moment I saw The Found and the Lost though, I knew it would be the perfect chance for me to rectify the situation. For the first time ever, every novella published by this renowned fantasy and science fiction icon can be found in one place, together at last in this gorgeous hardcover collection.
Here’s the full list of the stories, and what I thought of them:
Vaster than Empires and More Slow – A group of scientists journey to a distant planet on a mission of exploration and research, bringing along with them an empath whose role is to detect the presence of intelligent life once they arrive. However, his sensitivity to his co-workers’ emotions makes him an ornery crewmate to be around, causing much tension among the team. What a great opening story to grab the reader’s attention and kick off this anthology. It is intensely gripping and atmospheric. Fear plays a huge role in this story—fear of the unknown and of what we don’t understand. It’s a subject that carries through well, ultimately culminating into a somewhat abrupt but unexpectedly poignant ending.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight – Inspired by the magic of animals and their relationship with humans, this story tells of a young girl who becomes lost in the desert of the American Southwest. She is rescued by Coyote and brought to a community of animal characters who are effectively like people—a perspective I found both fascinating and a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Drawing heavily from Native American folklore, Le Guin creates a world that blends reality with mysticism, and the results are quite often surreal but also breathtakingly beautiful.
Hernes – “Hernes” is not among my favorites in this anthology, but it is nonetheless intriguing and thought provoking. Covering the lives of four generations of women, the story weaves together multiple tales of love, ambition, heartbreak, and self-discovery. It can be somewhat confusing at first to see how all the threads tie together, but I loved the author’s empathetic treatment of her characters’ struggles as well as her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationships by alluding to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
A Matter of Seggri – Seggri is a world where the number of females is six times greater than the number of males. For the most part the two sexes live completely separate lives, with the women making their homes in medieval-style villages while the men dwell in castles. While this story pulls us back into science fiction territory, it also features the author’s none-too-subtle endeavor to explore the nature of gender roles. At first, it may seem that the men on Seggri have it all—they compete in sports games to entertain themselves, later basking in the adoration of the females who want them to sire their children. As it soon turns out, however, the situation is much more complicated. This story wasn’t among my favorites either, but there are certain elements that I think will hit hard emotionally.
Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea – Hideo grew up listening to his mother tell him the legend about the fisherman who was seduced by a sea-princess only to return home afterwards to discover that centuries have passed. When Hideo later on becomes a physicist, he has the opportunity to embark on a journey that involves faster-than-light travel, and thus the connections between the fairy tale and the main character’s own life are revealed. The concept of time dilation or time warping often provides interesting twists in these kinds of stories, and I suppose this one is no exception, though after reading it I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing. Later on, I discovered this was supposed to be a companion story to a couple others that were published in another anthology. While I enjoyed this one well enough, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had gotten the context from the other stories.
Forgiveness Day – Speaking of interconnected stories, I believe these next three were all first published together in an anthology called Four Ways to Forgiveness. They have several themes in common, namely those that surround the subjects of slavery and freedom, suppression and liberation, order and rebellion. I loved “Forgiveness Day”, which tells of an envoy named Solly who travels to another world and is assigned a bodyguard named Teyeo. The two of them are water and oil from the start, though as the story progresses we are given an opportunity to see the situation from both points of view. I liked this one’s message about individual biases and how personal histories are shaped by experience. To sympathize with others we first must change our own way of thinking, and that starts with looking within ourselves.
A Man of the People – The narrator in this story spent his childhood growing up in the rural and sheltered community before heading out to discover all there is in the wider world. This is a tale featuring themes of freedom but also highlights the idea that we should never forget our pasts. I liked how much this one added to the discourse about the importance of empathy and involvement.
A Woman’s Liberation – This story has strong ties to the last, and really should be considered together. Both feature protagonists who have complicated histories and struggle with their individual identities, questioning who they are and what they want. I liked this one a little more, however, due to the voice of the main character—a woman who is born an “asset”, or a slave—as well as her point of view on the issues that were covered in these last three stories.
Old Music and the Slave Women – This one shines a spotlight on Old Music, a character who appeared briefly in one of the previous stories. Here he gets to tell his own tale about slavery, courage, and revolution. While it was nice being able to revisit this character again, truthfully it was hard to get into the narrative because of the slower pacing and muddled presentation of ideas.
The Finder – This one will probably hold more significance for fans of Earthsea since it takes place long ago in that world, chronicling the life of a young shipbuilder boy who manifests magical abilities. Like the other stories, the prose here is richly detailed and evocative, though my attention started waning as we drew closer to the end. It’s a shame because this story has a lot going for it, but it might have dragged on for a little too long.
On the High Marsh – Another tale from Earthsea, I had a hard time getting into this one as well because of a lack of connection I felt to the main character Ged (who I later learned was an Archmage of the Roke magic school, the origins of which were covered in “The Finder”). That said, I don’t often do well with side stories like this that focus on characters or events from the main books of a series.
Dragonfly – After struggling a little with the last few stories, “Dragonfly” was one that swept me off my feet. This third Earthsea story also appears tie into the main series; more specifically, I hear it’s sometimes been called a “postscript” to Tehanu, and again I wonder if I would have gotten even more out of it had I read the book first. I loved the eponymous main character, an earnest girl who is also a bit rough around the edges from being raised by an angry, alcoholic father. Through sheer persistence and courage though, she manages to gain entry into Roke, an all-male magic school. Overall, I really enjoyed this story’s themes, especially its message about the power of women’s magic and how a little determination can go a long way.
Paradises Lost – This one is about a generation ship and explores what it means for the people who are born and raised aboard during the long voyage. These are the generations descended from the original pilgrims, but it is their own descendants that will reach the final destination, not them. Le Guin speculates how this would affect the travelers both emotionally and spiritually, and the kind of society they might create. I love stories about generation ships and colonization, and this is perhaps one of the more philosophical ones I’ve read. There’s compassion and realism in it too as Le Guin gets right down to the issues that really matter to the people in that situation, and asks the questions that many other authors don’t address.
For Le Guin fans, this anthology is a must. But for new readers too, there is a lot to love. It’s true that some of the stories are better than others, and there are even a few that, when taken out of their original context, might be a little confusing especially if you’re unfamiliar with the author’s different worlds and cycles, but overall it serves as a great introduction to her style and the themes she writes about.
More importantly, the stories in here are an excellent showcase of the author’s astounding talent and deepness of thought, proving why her work has remained so beloved throughout the decades. Reading this was an absolute gift....more
This year, if you’re involved in one or more of the many diversity reading challenges out there or simply encouraging yourself to check out more diverse reads, I hope you’ll consider Dreadnought. Books like this one have a relevant place in our world today for their role in celebrating LGBT voices and spreading awareness, and I think what excited me most was the depth of our protagonist and the way her story was told.
Fifteen Danny Tozer has always known in her mind and in her heart that she is a girl, even if her body says otherwise. The crushing anxiety of trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender has been building lately, which is why at the start of this book, she finds herself hiding behind the mall secretly painting her toenails—holding onto this one thing she can control. That’s when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the world’s greatest superhero known as Dreadnought literally falls out of the sky and lands right in front of her. Gravely injured by a supervillain named Utopia, Dreadnought knows his time is near, so with his dying breath he passes his powers on to Danny.
In that moment, Danny is changed. Becoming the new Dreadnought has not only granted the amazing superpowers that come with the role, but it has also transformed her body into what she’s always thought it should be, the girl she has always been inside. For Danny, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her, though that happiness is quickly dampened when faced with the hostile reactions of her overbearing father who refuses to accept her new identity. At school, her best friend David is also suddenly treating her differently, saying and doing these awful things. Furthermore, Danny has realized that the mantle of Dreadnought comes with certain responsibilities—like saving the world. Sure enough, it’s not long before the superhero team Legion comes knocking at her door trying to recruit her, and the offer has Danny feeling torn. She knows she wants to help people, but she’s just not sure she wants to be the kind of hero the Legion wants her to be.
At its heart, Dreadnought is a superhero novel—it’s fun, fast-paced, and action-packed. But as you can see, there’s also a lot more to the story, and the conflicts here are complex and multi-faceted. I liked how this book incorporated the superhero elements while at the same time using Danny’s super-powered transformation and the accompanying acquisition of Dreadnought’s abilities as an allegory for a person coming out as transgender. April Daniels has done a fantastic job exploring Danny’s story, especially in detailing her internal struggles, her hopes and joys, fears and doubts. I can’t even pretend to understand how it feels for teens in that situation, but reading about Danny was definitely an emotional journey. Her character is well-written, deeply developed and very real.
Plot-wise, Dreadnought is an entertaining read. Momentum took some time to build, but when Danny meets the Legion, I think that was when the story really hit its stride. I loved Doc Impossible, and the banter between her and Danny during their first major scene together quickly made her one of my favorite side characters. Another thing I loved about this book was the female friendship. While Danny considers Legion’s offer to join up, she meets up with another “greycape” hero named Calamity (and I have a serious weakness for cowgirl-themed heroes) and the two of them take it upon themselves to help those who slip through the cracks of the Legion’s watch. They have a great dynamic together, and the excitement ramps up as the duo decide they have what it takes to take down Utopia themselves.
But for all its strengths, the story also has its weaknesses. There were parts of it that felt a little too clichéd or unconvincing. For example, other than Danny and maybe a couple other characters, no one else was all that fleshed out, and they were treated more like props than real people. Take the Legion—we hear about all their great deeds and how they’re the most powerful superhero team in the world, but of course at the moment of truth they are rendered useless so that our protagonist can conveniently step up to save the day. Portrayal of characters like David, Graywytch, or Danny’s parents are also extreme to the point where they sometimes felt like caricatures of caricatures. While people like that certainly exist, the way they were written in this book felt scripted and done for the sake of pushing the story along. The author also did more telling than showing, with rocky prose in places and pages of info-dumping being a frequent issue early on in the novel. Finally, world-building felt sparse and glossed over, and throughout the book I couldn’t help but experience this disconnect to the wider world beyond.
All told though, I enjoyed Dreadnought a lot. It’s an eye-opening book featuring a wonderfully developed and genuine protagonist. This is the origin story about how she became the eponymous superhero, and it is an unforgettable journey of action and emotion. What a promising start, with much potential for the rest of the Nemesis series!...more
Impending apocalypse. A heart-pounding Space Race. Political thrills. Oceans of Storms has all this and more, and it is also a story made up of many different parts. With scenes and situations reminiscent of movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, or Jurassic Park, the book also felt to me a lot like a Hollywood summer blockbuster in prose form. Indeed, looking back at the notes I took while reading, the thing that kept cropping up in my comments and descriptions was the word “cinematic”.
It all began with the moon. But of course, when the massive electromagnetic pulse ripped across Earth, knocking out power globally, no one knew the cause. It wasn’t until later that scientists determined that the EMP originated from our planet’s closest neighbor, where a powerful explosion had exposed something buried deep beneath the lunar surface. Based on early findings and analysis, at the bottom of this newly created fissure is an extremely large and technologically advanced object that has been on the moon for at least two million years. Which means whatever it is, it couldn’t have been placed there by human beings. Moreover, the discovery was accompanied with a message: coordinates to a location somewhere on the vast lunar mare called the Ocean of Storms.
Not surprisingly, the news causes worldwide chaos and panic. In response, the US vows to launch a manned mission to the lunar coordinates to investigate the source of the power surge. Problem is, budget cuts over the years have gutted NASA’s space program, putting them far behind where they need to be to make that possible. Meanwhile, the Chinese are way ahead, sending rockets to survey the moon from orbit, though they lack the lander technology—technology that the US has. To prevent further widespread unrest, the two countries’ space programs have no choice but to team up amidst the burgeoning cold war between their governments because the answers on the moon are too important to let politics get in the way. Knowing as well that they might find the remnants of an ancient civilization, two American archaeologists and a Chinese forensic anthropologist also join the team in the hopes of finding out who or what might have been responsible for the mysterious signal.
Before I begin, I have a confession to make. Archaeology and Anthropology are my pet subjects and my college specializations so as soon as I saw that a couple of “maverick archaeologists” were among the main characters of this book, I knew I had to read it. Relatively speaking though, neither the scientific or technological aspects were really all that weighty here, but there’s certainly enough to tickle readers’ interests. I also found the story easy to get into, and I very much enjoyed the mashup of sci-fi elements together with the thrills and suspense.
I think if the authors had stayed on this course, the book would have been even more compelling. I loved how things started with a bang, and that burst of momentum was continued by the mystery of the discovery on the moon. As I mentioned before, there was also a cinematic quality to the story that I really enjoyed. Sure, the characters might not be all that deep, and the overall premise might be too farfetched or unconvincing, but I have I to say I didn’t mind too much. I picked up this book for the same reason millions flock to see the big-budget, special-effects laden films that dominate the box office every year—to be entertained. And for the most part, I think Ocean of Storms succeeded. Without giving away any spoilers, I would say the book only stumbled in the second half, when the story shifted away from the big action and suspense to focus instead on convoluted government conspiracies, dubious physics, and going a little too overboard with paleoanthropological theory.
To the book’s credit though, I never once found it boring. Suffice to say, I think the authors wanted Ocean of Storms to be the literary equivalent of the “big-budget, special-effects laden blockbuster” and had a boatload of great ideas to make it so, but ultimately they might have taken it a little too far. There’s just not enough room to make all these pieces fit together coherently, so while the end result is certainly captivating, it unfortunately also feels somewhat disjointed.
Still, in spite of my complaints, Ocean of Storms was a damn fun read and I do not regret the time I spent with it. I loved the concept, even if its execution was a bit off and the science was a little flimsy. Let’s just say you aren’t likely to be bowled over by its literary merits, but if you’re simply looking to kick back with an entertaining, high-octane sci-fi thriller, then you’ve come to the right place. Overall a really enjoyable, if at times flawed, read....more
Children of the Different is the fantasy debut from author S.C. Flynn that has been making some waves around the blogosphere, and I was delighted when I discovered that it was also available in audiobook format. The reality of the busy fall season means these days I find myself with less time to curl up with book; it’s much more likely that I’m bustling around listening to one in my ear, rather than actually sitting down turning the pages. Needless to say I immediately leapt upon the opportunity to review this one, especially since I’ve been curious about it for a while.
The first thing that struck me was the uniqueness of the setting. Post-apocalyptic novels are a big trend these days—especially in the Young Adult genre—but Children of the Different manages to avoid clichés and stand out with its offbeat approach. First, I really like that the book takes place in south-western Australia, in a forest where our protagonists live. Arika and her twin brother Narrah were born after “The Great Madness”, a catastrophic event that happened nineteen years ago, unleashing a brain disease that decimated the earth’s population. Curiously though, many of the survivors were those who had brain diseases or mental conditions from the world before, and came out of the Great Madness miraculously cured. Others, unfortunately, were transformed into cannibalistic zombie-like monsters called “Ferals”.
And now, children born into this new reality are at risk. At the start of their adolescence, all of them must experience a trance called the “The Changing”, a process which sends their consciousness into a dreamscape. At the end of that journey, they either emerge endowed with a special mental power…or they become Feral. After the intro of this book, both Arika and Narrah have come out of their Changings, thankfully with their minds intact, but the things they saw in the Changeland have shaken them, terrified them. A malicious force known as the Echidna, or the anteater, has fixated its attention on the twins. In order to survive, the siblings will have to rely on their newfound powers, and their love for each other, to face and defeat this nebulous new threat.
I’ll admit, because so much of the beginning dealt with the Changing and what our characters experienced in the Changeland, it took me a while to find my bearings and get a feel for this story. I don’t always do well with metaphysical themes in fantasy, and many of the scenes described during the dreamscape sections came dangerously close to being too weird for me to handle.
My initial confusion ebbed, however, once we got past the introduction and into the meat of the story. I liked how the author linked the concept of the Great Madness and the Changing to the post-apocalyptic world, creating a premise which feels at once familiar and but also very fresh. It’s a nice blend of many genres, with themes from both sci-fi and fantasy mingling happily together, and hey, why not throw in some elements from the zombie horror genre as well, or even some survival suspense-thriller?
And no doubt about it, a huge part of the book’s appeal also comes from its atmosphere. I have not been back to Australia in many years, but I still have fond memories of my visit to its cities and wilderness. While the version of Australia in Children of the Different may be a crumbling, lawless place and civilization is virtually nonexistent after the devastation of The Great Madness, S.C. Flynn still retains some of the setting’s charm in the diversity of the landscape, wildlife, and culture of the survivors.
It’s worth noting as well that, even though the book’s description makes no statement whether this is an adult or YA novel, I think it would work well for both audiences. It’s true that this book stars teenage protagonists and has strong coming-of-age vibes, but for readers who are open to those themes, I think this story would have good crossover appeal.
Finally, because I reviewed the audiobook, I just want to end with some comments about the narration. I’m really glad I got to experience the novel in this format, because I the narrator Stephen Briggs was absolutely fantastic. He does amazing accents for the characters, giving readers that extra layer of immersion with his performance. The production team could not have chosen a better reader for this novel, and if you are curious about checking out Children of the Different, I would highly recommend the audio edition....more
On the face of it, the premise behind this book resembles something which might have resulted from an ill-considered bet, quite possibly after a wild night of tequila shots. “Duuuuuude, what if you made Breaking Bad take place during the French late Baroque period? Except everything’s, like, totally in the future? You could have Marie Antoinette peddling pep pills out of her panniers! Bet you couldn’t write a story about that.”
“Just watch me!” says my imaginary Aprilynne Pike. And so, we have Glitter, a novel featuring a weird cocktail of historical and futuristic elements, where you will frequently find things like tablets or servitor bots mentioned in the same sentence as corsets and petticoats. All of this is set to the backdrop of the Versailles, where the interiors have been transformed back to their 18th century royal court-and-pomp glory. While modern day life outside the palace goes on as normal, inside its marbled walls the people live much differently, dressing, acting, talking and even eating like it’s still the 1700s.
The reason for this bizarre scenario is soon given, and seriously, you have to read it to believe it. Sometime in this world’s past, a global famine swept the planet, and the only way people survived was thanks to a new kind of crop seed developed and sold by Sonoma Inc. The company then became so stinking rich that, when France fell into massive debt and started offering up its landmarks for sale out of sheer desperation, Sonoma jumped at the chance to purchase the Versailles under the guise of a historical society. After screwing France out of one its most beloved heritage sites, they decided to rename it Sonoma-Versailles and the palace became sort of its own little corporation-kingdom. And since the CEO of Sonoma back then was a huge Louis XIV enthusiast, he made himself and everyone that worked for him live like the decadent royals and courtiers did back when his favorite monarch sat the throne (only with all the luxuries of modern technology too, of course). The tradition continued after him, so that now, three generations later, it has become the culture within Sonoma-Versailles.
Understandably, it’s a bit hard to categorize this novel. I’m not even sure how to describe it (is there such a thing as historical sci-fi?) but whatever it is, it’s crazy and weird but also strangely appealing. If you can get past the sheer absurdity and logical gaps (for one thing, how does a company like Sonoma Inc. manage to stay so rich, when all of their top execs are literally doing nothing but LARPing the Court of the Sun King?) then you’ll find this story is actually quite an entertaining read.
Still, perhaps it is because so much convoluted background information was required to explain its ridiculous premise, the actual hook of the story doesn’t even come about until well into the novel. Our protagonist, Danica Grayson, was just a daughter of a low-ranking Sonoma employee until her father unexpectedly inherited an influential position at the palace. Her power-hungry mother Angela immediately uses this an opportunity to groom Dani to catch the eye of King Justin, Sonoma’s current young CEO. The problem is, Justin turns out to be a murdering megalomaniacal psychopath—not that it seems to bother Dani’s mom one bit. In fact, Angela only uses the King’s dirty secrets to blackmail him into agreeing to marry Dani, so that her daughter can become queen.
Desperate to escape her betrothal, Dani seeks out a crime boss in Paris to help smuggle her out of Sonoma-Versailles. Problem is, his fee is enormous, and she can’t come anywhere close to meeting it on her own. So Dani decides to make a bargain with the crime boss: she’ll mix and deal a highly addictive kind of new drug called Glitter for him, under the pretense of selling it as cosmetics to her unsuspecting peers at court. The plan is that they will all get hopelessly addicted to Dani’s new makeup products and keep throwing money at her to buy more of it without ever knowing why, and she will make her fee and be out of there before her wedding to the King.
Okay. So I had one major issue with this book, and after laying out Dani’s situation, you can probably guess what it is.
The blurb for this book compares it to Breaking Bad and I can see why one would draw that parallel. After all, the show’s main character Walter White also had to resort to cooking and selling drugs because he needed the money, even though it is a heinous thing to do. However, Walter still came off as sympathetic character not only because he was in a bad situation, but also because he was initially doing it to secure his family’s future and well-being. Dani, on the other hand, never managed to earn that kind of sympathy from me. Yes, she was in a bad situation too, but foisting a highly dangerous and addictive new drug on her unwitting fellow courtiers without their knowledge or consent, with the express goal to get them hooked so she can get rich fast?
That is APPALLING.
At first, I didn’t like it, but still had to admire Dani for her cajones. She didn’t want to have to marry her psycho King, I get that. But somehow, being in a bad place made her feel justified to put hundreds of others in a bad place too, even after the horrors of watching her own father deal with Glitter addiction. In the end, it was Dani’s complete disregard for innocent human life that really put a damper on my feelings for this book. To her credit, I think the author knew that her protagonist would be a tough sell, and tried to soften the blow by trying to convince us that Dani had no choice, or that she was frequently wracked with guilt. Thing is, I just didn’t buy it. Dani had plenty of opportunities to back out, but she made the conscious decision not to at every single turn.
I also didn’t like the romance too much. It was like a light switched on and Dani and Saber went from hating each other one day to professing their undying love the next. Their relationship was an awkward match right from the start, when Dani was halfway to throwing herself at Saber the moment she laid eyes on him—even though they’d barely spoken two words to each other. If only she had showed even a fraction of that regard for the clueless folks she’s secretly doping up in Sonoma-Versailles.
Glitter was a very interesting book though, I have to give it that. I was intrigued the moment I read its synopsis, not to mention a little skeptical, but Aprilynne Pike pulled it all off with unashamed poise and gusto. The world-building is a bit iffy in places, but I really didn’t mind that too much. My main complaints had to do with the protagonist, and had she been a tad less despicable I probably would have enjoyed this book even more. If the next book promises growth for Dani, I just might be convinced to continue the series....more
When I first found out about this book, I thought it had one of the most unique premises I’ve ever seen. But then the early reviews started trickling in, and it seems the one common opinion among a lot of them were “I had no idea what was going on,” or “I was so confused.” In part, that led me to my decision to listen to The Tourist audiobook in the hopes that the format will alleviate some of the issues, but also, I learned that it would be read by Peter Kenny, one of my favorite narrators.
In the end, the audiobook production itself was as fantastic as I expected; it was the story that left me with mixed feelings. The Tourist, as it turns out, is a time travel book, and “tourism” refers to the excursions back to the past by persons in the future. The 24th century is apparently a rather dreary and dull place, and the possibility of time travel has opened up a myriad options for your everyday jaded vacationer. The most popular destination by far is the 21st century, where the travelers can’t seem to get enough of our quaint shopping malls and fast food joints.
Our protagonist is a tour guide, ferrying his charges back and forth through time, making sure they follow all the complicated rules of time traveling and that they all get back home safely. Then one day, after tallying up his roster following a routine day on the job, he notices that a female passenger in his party has gone missing. She has, ostensibly, been left behind, but as our tour guide digs deeper to recover his lost client, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to the situation.
Ultimately, I think my decision to listen to the audiobook paid off in some ways, while putting me at a disadvantage in others. The story goes on multiple tangents throughout, and had I been reading The Tourist in prose form, these sections might have put me off the book immediately. Needless to say, I am much less likely to lose focus when I am listening to someone reading, especially when the narration is done well.
On the other hand, the audio format did nothing to help the story’s overall feeling of disjointedness; if anything, it might have made it feel worse. For one thing, this book lacks any kind of coherent plotting, and the narrative jumps from person to person, place to place, time to time. In audio, these frequent switches were made even more obvious and jarring. Peter Kenny did his best, but even with his excellent voice work to help differentiate who the story was following, it was hard to keep up. Furthermore, one of the main perspectives was presented in the second-person, a confusing narrative mode even under the best circumstances, and here it only muddied the waters even more.
I have a feeling this book will pose a head-scratcher even for fans of time travel stories, which is a shame because there are some truly original and fascinating concepts in here. Still, it doesn’t matter how amazing a novel’s ideas are, they mean very little if readers cannot make heads or tails out of its story or what the author is trying to accomplish. The Tourist is pitched as a suspenseful mystery thriller, but I am sad to say I didn’t feel any of the “thrills” at all. To be fair though, there actually is a mystery involved, except it just wasn’t the kind that pulled you in, or made you want to know more. Instead, it left me feeling more frustrated than anything else.
Still, while I may be disappointed with the story of The Tourist, I’m not sorry I listened to the audiobook. Even though I can’t wholly bring myself to recommend the novel, the ideas are cool enough that it might be worth picking up this book to experience them, especially if you’re into time traveling stories that are different, and if you’re feeling in the mood for a challenge. Also, given the convoluted nature of this novel, I am even more impressed with Peter Kenny’s narration. The book itself might not have worked for me, but I found little to complain about Kenny’s reading; he delivered an excellent performance as always, on top of which he narrated with an aplomb that gave me confidence that he knew what was going on even if I didn’t—sometimes that alone is enough to keep momentum going, when otherwise I would have set a print book aside....more
If you are a fan of Star Wars, especially the animated The Clone Wars TV series, then Star Wars: Ahsoka is certainly not to be missed. While that show may have ended a couple years ago, many were surprised when Anakin Skywalker’s young Padawan Ahsoka Tano, who left the Jedi Order near the end of the Clone Wars, suddenly resurfaced again in the current run of Star Wars: Rebels. This Ahsoka is older, wiser, and carries a lot more scars. What exactly happened to her during those mysterious intervening years? How did she survive the Jedi slaughter following the execution of Order 66? What led her to join the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the Empire? I was excited to read this book in the hopes that it provide some insights into these questions, and I was not disappointed.
I was also fortunate enough to receive the audio edition of Star Wars: Ahsoka for review. With their high production values, sound effects, and music, Star Wars audiobooks are always a treat, but I have to say the very best part of this one is the narrator, Ashley Eckstein, who was also the voice actress for the Ahsoka on The Clone Wars and Rebels. If you’re on the fence about giving the audiobook version a try, this might end up being the deciding factor. Personally speaking, I thought that listening to Ms. Eckstein read the book gave my experience that extra little “coolness” boost, almost like I was listening to Ahsoka tell her own tale.
The story begins on Empire Day a few years after the end of Revenge of the Sith, where we find Ahsoka hiding out on the planet Thabeska under her new assumed name, “Ashla”. When circumstances force her to go on the run again, she decides to head for the remote moon of Raada, home to a rustic farming community. Here, Ahsoka hopes to continue eking out a quiet and simple life for herself, working as a mechanic. However, that peace is about to be shattered. Thanks to its rich soils and resources, Raada has suddenly come to the attention of the Empire, and the Imperial Navy has moved in to take over the agricultural industry. Needless to say, the locals aren’t too happy with this. The Empire is only interested in quantity over quality, and their crops are destroying the moon and the future of its citizens.
Against her original plans, Ahsoka finds herself unexpectedly pulled into Raada’s rebellion. The new friends she has made are humble farmers, full of anger towards the Empire but inexperienced when it comes to fighting. To prevent any more people from being hurt or killed, Ahsoka decides to help them put together a more organized resistance.
Star Wars: Ahsoka can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you only have a slight familiarity with anything to do with Star Wars, but obviously readers who already have a good knowledge of the character and her roles in the two shows will find it a lot more interesting and emotionally impactful. E.K. Johnston made her story accessible to new readers, but there are also a lot of references and flashbacks to past events—many of which were from The Clone Wars—which will no doubt appeal to fans of Ahsoka.
I imagine writing a Star Wars novel is no small task, especially when you’re tackling such an important and popular character like Ahsoka, but I thought Johnston did a fantastic job. Her writing and storytelling remained true to the Star Wars universe and the protagonist’s personality, detailing the thoughts and actions of the young Togruta. The former student of Anakin Skywalker has come into her own, and even though the Clone Wars has hardened and matured her, she still retains all of her courage and hopeful optimism.
With regards to the story, I felt there were some mild pacing issues, namely at the beginning and at the end of the book. The energy in the first few chapters was definitely a bit on the sluggish side, owing to the fact that the main conflict took too long to be introduced. This is understandable in some ways, since the setting as well as characters have to be established, and Ahsoka herself was trying to keep a low profile. After the first quarter of the book though, the plot’s pacing noticeably picks up. The reader’s patience pays off as the action and excitement gradually builds to an amazing climax. After this point, I actually wished there had been more to the finale! I won’t deny that the ending felt rushed and that the book could have been longer, but those complaints aside, I had an amazingly good time with this novel.
But of course, the biggest reason why you should read this book is all the wonderful and significant moments we get to see involving Ahsoka. We learn how she reestablishes contact with Bail Organa and joins the resistance, earning the codename Fulcrum. We also find out how she obtains her new set of white lightsabers, not to mention the fascinating new lore surrounding Force-attuned crystals.
All that being said, if you are relatively new to the wider world of the Star Wars universe, you can certainly still enjoy this novel for what it is—but I probably wouldn’t recommend starting here. This book feels first and foremost like it was written for an audience already familiar with Ahsoka. Johnston clearly knows and loves the character, and delights in sharing that love with her readers by giving plenty of nods to events that happened in episodes of The Clone Wars. Even if you haven’t seen the TV series you will have a great time, but for fans of the show, it’s the little moments like that which will give you an extra thrill. Needless to say, if you love The Clone Wars and Rebels, this is an absolute must-read, and you will get a well-written and entertaining story as well.
Additional Audiobook Comments: Other than stating how awesome it is that Ashley Eckstein is the narrator for this? She’s also amazing with voices and the fact that she voiced Ahsoka in the shows gave this audiobook an additional layer of immersion. She’s no stranger to voice acting, and her talent shines through in this performance....more
In the same spirit of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, its sequel A Closed and Common Orbit likewise tackles the themes of life, love, and the exploration of interpersonal, social, and cultural ideas. However, if you’re jumping on board this one immediately following the first book, you might also find yourself surprised by the many differences. The greatest departure is perhaps the novel’s format and style, which tightens the scope of the story to focus on the only two characters returning for this follow-up (explaining its standalone status and why reading the first book is not a requirement before tackling this one). In spite of this though, I have to say I most definitely enjoyed this book even more than its predecessor.
We first met Lovelace and Pepper from The Long Way, and while they might not have been among the key perspective characters, they nonetheless quickly won over readers’ hearts. Now through their eyes, we get to experience another chapter of the Wayfarers saga, continuing the story from another point of view. Without going into too much detail, Lovelace was once the A.I. of a starship, but due to complicated circumstances her programming had to be transferred into a highly realistic (and also extremely illegal) synthetic human body called a “kit”. Having been “reborn” into this new life, she also decides to take on a new identity, adopting the name Sidra. With her friend Pepper, the tech wizard who helped download her consciousness into her body kit, the two of them begin to work out how they will go about integrating Sidra into the greater galactic society without setting off suspicions or attracting attention from the law.
At the same time, this present narrative is interspersed with another story from the past, one following the incredible journey of a young girl named Jane 23. This was Pepper’s childhood, which began in a facility whose sole purpose was to churn out bio-engineered clones for use as cheap and disposable labor. The clones are treated poorly, kept sheltered and ignorant, and only taught enough to perform their functions. Though eventually Jane manages to break free of the factory, her struggles continue as she learns the hard way about the truths of the galaxy.
As much as these two narratives may differ on the surface, beneath them lies several unifying themes. The parallels are ultimately what makes this book so meaningful. Both Lovelace/Sidra and Jane/Pepper came into this world as creations, meant to serve a purpose. There are also those in the galaxy who don’t consider them human, or at least deserving of the full rights granted to citizens of the Galactic Commons. And yet, as we read of their hopes and desires, it is clear there’s more to being an artificial intelligence or a clone. As soon as Sidra and Jane are freed from their respective constraints, they face that age-old question that has been asked by sentient beings since the beginning of time: “Now what?”
This book is about learning who you are. It is also about taking control of your own destiny. It is about family, friendship, and finding a place to belong. In a galaxy so large, where aliens of all different shapes and sizes mingle, where all kinds of cultures and traditions co-exist, you would think it should be easier for those who feel on the outside to find acceptance, but the reality is much more complicated. Sidra and Janes’ stories illustrate how personal contentment also first needs to come from within, and I loved how their experiences mirrored and played off each other as they both reached to gain a deeper understanding. It’s touching and heartbreaking at the same time–a lot like the tone of the first novel.
Furthermore, even though the original crew of the Wayfarer do not return, I think readers will be equally charmed by the wonderful personalities of Sidra and Jane. Admittedly, there wasn’t as much to see or take in as the first book, and we followed only a few characters rather than an ensemble cast, but to tell the truth, Closed and Common worked better for me. Granted, The Long Way was arguably more about the character relationships than the overarching plot, but I had wanted more in terms of story and conflict. This sequel gave me a lot more of both, in addition to being more focused and coherent. In my opinion it’s also more cleverly written because of the connections and shared themes in the two narratives, leading to more reflection and feeling.
If you’re looking for feel-good science fiction, look no further than Wayfarers. Even though A Closed and Common Orbit is a standalone, I’d still strongly recommend reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet first. This will, after all, be a universe you’ll want to visit again and again, and it only makes sense to begin with the phenomenon that started it all. I can’t wait to see what Chambers has in store for the future of this series....more
I’m glad I got a chance to read some reviews before tackling Good Morning, Midnight, because it only reaffirmed my suspicions that despite its promise of a “catastrophic event” and its post-apocalyptic setting, the book in truth reads more like an evocative and haunting piece of human drama. It is powerful and moving, which almost makes one feel nostalgically wistful for quieter, simpler times.
The story is told mainly through the perspectives of two characters. Augustine is an elderly astronomer who spent his life traveling the world to make a name for himself, trading away all personal attachments for his ambition. Now, alone and nearing the end of his life, Augustine finds himself making a decision he never thought would come about, but once the choice is made there would be no going back. He’s at his latest research posting, located in a remote Arctic facility, when the unsettling news arrives: something bad is happening out there in the world, and all the scientists are strongly urged to evacuate on the last plane out. With no loved ones to return to and still plenty of work to be done, Augustine refuses to leave, which is how he came to be the only one left at the base while the rest of the planet goes silent. However, shortly afterwards, he comes upon a little girl named Iris, seemingly left behind in all of the commotion. Desperately, he tries to raise an alert on every communications system he can think of, but it’s no use. No one answers.
Meanwhile, Mission Specialist Sullivan is an astronaut aboard a spacecraft called the Aether, finally making her way back home following a years-long research flight through space to study Jupiter. She and her crewmates were not too far from the end of their journey when they lose contact with Mission Control, leaving them all perturbed over what might be happening to their families and friends back on Earth. For Sully, who left behind a young daughter with her ex-husband, the silence troubles her deeply and fills her with guilt, even though she thought she’d come to terms with all the sacrifices she made for her work. The Aether has been so gone so long, everyone on board is eager to be back on Earth again, but what might they find when they arrive, if they can even make it that far?
Granted, Good Morning, Midnight might not be a page-turning read, but it is nonetheless gripping in its own way. It’s one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read, which is even more impressive when you consider how much of its themes focus on the emptiness of isolation and solitude. The characters Augustine and Sully may seem far removed from each other, both literally and metaphorically, but there’s still a strong parallel between their lives, marked by feelings of regret and the fear of the unknown. The people in this book are fragile and imperfect individuals, discovering truths about themselves while they delve into their pasts during moments of vulnerability. In many ways, this was not an easy book to read. My heart ached for the protagonists. Both of them yearn for answers, comfort, reassurance, but it’s clear that neither will find any of those easily. When the end of the world comes, many won’t realize what’s really important until it’s too late.
But while the tone of the book was pretty much what I expected, there were still a few issues which made it difficult for me to get into the story. We never get to find out what the catastrophic event was that presumably wiped out everyone on the planet. A part of me is aware that it’s beside the point, but not knowing a single thing about it still chafed, especially since there were plenty of hints dropped about what it might not be—reports of no radiation poisoning, clear skies above the planet surface, etc. I didn’t go into this one expecting a typical post-apocalyptic novel, but I guess you could say I still wanted the post-apocalypse to have a bigger role in the story. I also anticipated the more laid-back and steady pacing, but certain sections still slowed to a crawl, expounding on character thoughts and motives without adding anything new. The narrative does this a lot, practically spelling out all the connections so that I was really left with no surprises at the end.
Still, Good Morning, Midnight was a good read. The book’s cover depicting a lone tent among the Arctic dunes is a pretty accurate reflection of the story’s tone—a single point of light in the darkness, surrounded by a vast sea of stars. It’s a moody, broody novel which puts emotion ahead of plot, and if that’s something you think you’ll enjoy, I would highly recommend giving it a try....more
Heather Graham is such a prominent and prolific writer that these days it’s nearly impossible to walk into a bookstore or even the books section of your local grocery or department store without seeing her name on something. That said, even though Graham has been on my radar for a while, I must confess I’d been woefully unfamiliar with her work. Up until recently, I honestly thought she only wrote exclusively romances and contemporary mysteries, when in fact her novels actually run the full gamut of genres.
So I was a little surprised when I got a pitch about The Rising, co-authored by her and Jon Land. As you can imagine, the tagline “Stranger Things meets X-Files and Independence Day” piqued my interest right away, for up until that moment I’d only been vaguely aware of this book, with absolutely no clue what it was about, let alone that it had any sci-fi or paranormal elements. Now that I’ve read it though, I want to add one more comparison to the list. Back in 2002 there was a miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel called Taken, and without spoiling the plot too much, I have to say reading The Rising also brought me back to many of the show’s moments, on top of those that have already been mentioned.
The story begins on the night of a huge high school football game. Star quarterback Alex is expected to take the team to championships, and everyone has shown up to cheer them on including his quiet and somewhat nerdy classmate and tutor, Samantha Dixon. For years, Sam has harbored a secret crush on Alex, even though they’ve always traveled in different circles. Currently she is interning at NASA, hoping that it will lead to a career with them after she graduates, while Alex is already on his way to becoming a famous football player, having been offered numerous scholarships.
But then disaster strikes on the field, and Alex is rushed to the hospital. Overnight, he finds his world changed and his future uncertain…but not for the reasons you would expect. Physically, the football accident he suffered actually left him relatively unscathed, but results of his various medical tests have raised concerns with his doctor, who finds something peculiar in Alex’s brain scan. Before it can be investigated though, the doctor is murdered, followed by Alex’s parents. Someone seems to be targeting Alex and those close to him, and he has no idea why. Now his only hope of survival rests with his friend Sam, whose work contacts may be able to shed light on the nightmare his life has become.
The Rising is mostly a thriller mystery novel—and in fact, Alex’s whole life becomes a riddle to be solved, once he realizes everything he has ever known is now in question—but there is also a good mix of other genres, including the big ones of romance and science fiction. I would even go as far as to say there could be some Young Adult appeal to this, even if the storytelling feels more mature despite the teenage protagonists. And yet despite all these moving parts, the novel remains a well-balanced and fast-paced read, the authors constantly driving the story forward never once allowing it to flag. They manage this by packing the plot full of action and violence, and even during the quieter moments they are laying down important clues or following them up.
However, I will say the writing took some time getting used to. It’s unclear how much of it has to do with this being a co-authored book, since I have not read either Graham or Land before picking up The Rising, so I don’t know enough to say whether or not their writing styles are compatible. The prose felt choppy to me sometimes, and scenes and POV changes didn’t always transition very well, plus the ending also came and went too abruptly. The short chapters probably didn’t help the unevenness of the writing either, but fortunately, the going does get easier once you fall into the rhythm of things.
All told, I enjoyed The Rising. The authors might not have set out to be groundbreaking with their book, but overall I found it to be a fun read and satisfying for what it was. I went into the novel expecting it to be a high-octane genre bender, and got exactly what I wanted—a romantic suspense sci-fi thriller that never ceased to entertain....more
Oh boy, this was exactly the kind of book I needed in my life.
Not that my current to-read list is lacking by any means, being well stocked with all kinds of offerings from mind-blowing cerebral science fiction to sweeping epic fantasies. But sometimes you just gotta kick back with some giant rampaging shark action, you know?
Hence, the Meg, short for Megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon, a species of prehistoric shark that lived more than 2.6 million years ago and makes its extant cousin the Great White look like a precious little baby.
Thank all that is good and holy that these guys are extinct.
Steve Alten’s MEG series, the first book of which is soon to be adapted into a movie, follows the exciting and oftentimes terrifying underwater adventures of former US Navy deep sea diver Jonas Taylor and his family. Meg: Nightstalkers is the fifth novel of the sequence, though like all the other books it can be read perfectly fine on its own as a standalone. Being new to the series, I was grateful for the plentiful background information provided by the author which gently eased me back into this next chapter of the story. The first part technically began in the previous installment Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, and considering that it was published a little more than seven years ago, I am likely not the only reader who would appreciate all the recap details. Regardless, whether you’re a newcomer or just continuing the series, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.
The book starts off following a nightmare situation already underway, with Lizzy and Bela, the two massive Megalodon sisters, having been set loose from the marine facility owned by the Taylor and Tanaka families. They’ve been storming up the coast ever since, ultimately winding up in the Salish Sea off British Columbia. But while Jonas has his hands full trying to figure out how to recapture or kill the Megs, his son David is also dealing with some prehistoric sea monster problems of his own. After witnessing his girlfriend die in a gruesome attack, David has agreed to join the hunt for the creature responsible—a 120-foot, hundred-ton Liopleurodon which had escaped from its refuge in the Panthalassa Sea.
Because giant sharks obviously aren’t enough.
I’m not even going to try and pretend these books are anything more than they appear to be, nor will I deny the fact I read this simply out of pure guilty pleasure. The writing isn’t going to be raking in any awards. The plot is laughably absurd. The violence and gore is flagrantly gratuitous, the science lacks any kind of logic or credibility, and most of the characters are stupid arrogant blowhards with more balls than brains (plenty of shark fodder, yay!)
But man, did I have a helluva fun time with this one.
I’ll be the first to admit a weakness for the kinds of creature features made popular during the 70s and 80s, or those cheesy made-for-TV horror films featuring animals running amok or going on killing sprees. Meg: Nightstalkers felt a lot like the book version of that, and to be honest, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to read about gigantic prehistoric sea monsters swimming around wreaking havoc on quaint seaside properties, sinking a bunch of boats, and devouring a crap ton of people.
Every once in a while I’ll find myself in a mood for an unassuming and shamelessly pulpy novel like this one, just to let loose and have fun. And I have to say, I was extremely satisfied to get my five hours of guts-splattering, blood-spewing terror and entertainment out of this book. From its fascinating intro to that explosive ending worthy of Jurassic World, I enjoyed every moment. Will it be for everyone? Probably not. But as the old saying goes, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. With books like these, what you see is what you get, which can be unbelievably refreshing and cathartic. I feel that my reading routine is made much richer by mixing in light and fun offerings on occasion, the sort of stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I get the chance to sneak them in between my longer heavier reads, they can be a real treat. After my experience with Nightstalkers, I would definitely read more MEG books. In fact, I’ve already placed a hold on the first one at my library.
So, when you’re heading out to the beach this summer, to hell with the other beach-goers who’ll probably give you and this book funny looks! Consider packing along a copy in your day bag. You’ll have a great time…even if you’ll want to stay out of the water....more
It’s no secret I’m very excited for Rogue One this winter. While the movie can’t come soon enough, in the meantime I thought I would whet my appetite with the prequel novel that’s meant to portray events that take place in the preceding years. In case you’re wondering whether you need to read Rogue One: Catalyst before seeing the movie though, the answer is: Only if you want to. Like most Star Wars novels in the expanded universe, I would not consider it required reading, and might even recommend against making this your first Star Wars novel if you’ve not read any before. But if on the other hand you’re the kind of “big picture” reader who appreciates a good background story, then this book will likely put some of the movie’s events into context and enrich your experience when you watch it.
Opening soon after the end of Episode II: Attack of the Clones and into the early years of the Clone Wars, Catalyst tells story of Galen Erso and Orson Krennic, both of whom will be featured in the upcoming film. A long and complicated history exists between the two men, and James Luceno seeks to explore this relationship by putting strong emphasis on the characters. First, there’s Galen, an energy scientist working on harnessing power from crystals. He and his wife Lyra are soon expecting the birth of their daughter (Jyn Erso, the lead of Rogue One) when Separatists take over the planet they are settled on, imprisoning Galen because of his refusal to work for them. However, the family is soon rescued by Orson Krennic, an old friend of Galen who appears to have made quite a name for himself in Palpatine’s new government. Krennic is now on a team working on a top secret weapons project codenamed “Celestial Power”, which of course is the Death Star.
Years pass, and with the fall of the Republic, work on the project Celestial Power has become more crucial than ever to the burgeoning Empire. Hoping to recruit Galen to the program and win favor from the Emperor, Krennic is not above manipulating the scientist by offering him a brand new research facility and the promise of kyber crystals. Dedicated only to his work, Galen is uninterested in taking sides in the war (which incidentally was how he ended up being imprisoned years before), but long has he wanted to use kybers for his research. Because the crystals had been under the purview of the Jedi, obtaining them had been an impossible feat, but now that the Jedi Order has been destroyed, they no longer pose an obstacle. Wary of Krennic and the Empire, Lyra fears that Galen might be heading down a path he’ll regret. Her husband is too blinded by his obsession with research to see what his old “friend” is trying to do, and it is tearing their family apart.
Primarily centered on the construction of the Death Star, Catalyst is heavily focused on the logistics and science behind putting together the huge space station. We’re also given more information than we’ve ever had before about the mysterious Force-attuned kyber crystals that Jedi use to build their lightsabers. If you’re interested in details like that, great! If not, then all of this will probably feel a bit dry. The info dumping was especially noticeable in the first half of the book, which unfortunately is when strong pacing is needed the most. The story takes a while to get started, and even as we move through the various developments in the novel, the tone of it remains relatively understated. This is in contrast to some of the more adventurous, action-oriented novels in the new Star Wars canon which might serve as a better jumping on point for newcomers to the books. Catalyst with its themes of intrigue, machinations and plotting might feel a little too slow and underwhelming in comparison.
That said, they couldn’t have tapped a more perfect author to write this novel. I’ve always felt that Luceno excels when it comes to the more low-key Star Wars stories due to his attention to detail and thoughtful approach to writing about darker, more subtle themes. From reading Darth Plagueis and Tarkin, I know that he is also fantastic with his characterizations, and of course he is once again at the top of his game with Catalyst. For this story to work, the reader had to be convinced of the unique and complex dynamic between Galen and Krennic. In spite of the other side plots involving Lyra, Jyn and Dressellian smuggler Captain Has Obitt, the book’s main conflict always came back to the relationship between the two men. To make sense of it all, we first had to understand what made each of them tick, and Luceno did an excellent job in that regard.
In the end, I thought Catalyst was good but not great. If you’re just starting to check out Star Wars fiction, there are probably better books in the new canon to read first, and unless you have a pressing need to learn all you can about the construction of the Death Star, you could probably put this one on the lower priority pile. That said, it’s still worth reading if you plan on seeing the Rogue One movie, if nothing else to gain a better understanding of the characters and story.
Audiobook Comments: I do love my Star Wars books in audio. No other kind of production gives me that epic experience complete with music and sound effects, and other than maybe Marc Thompson, I can’t think of another Star Wars audiobook narrator who is as fun and amazing to listen to as Jonathan Davis. If you’ve ever heard him do his Darth Vader voice, you’d understand. Too bad he doesn’t get the chance to do so in Catalyst, but he nevertheless delivers a fantastic performance, giving every character a unique voice. I never turn down the chance to listen to a Star Wars book, and this was another great one....more
I had a nice surprise when I picked up Department Zero. The book initially caught my eye as a cross-genre science fiction and fantasy adventure about infinite alternate realities, as well as a secret society of agents who have to traverse multiple worlds to clean up interstitial messes. But as if that isn’t cool enough already, Paul Crilley doubles down by tying everything into the Cthulhu mythos and giving this one a nice shot of Lovecraftian horror.
The story stars Harry Priest, a man with one hell of a tough job. He’s in what you would call “biohazard remediation”, which means he cleans up dead people for a living, usually at the site of accidents, murders, suicides, and unattended deaths where the body has had plenty of time to decompose in the stifling L.A. heat. You name it, Harry’s seen it. But still, nothing could have prepared him for his latest assignment. On what he thought was another routine call, Harry arrives to a gore-splattered abandoned motel room in the middle of nowhere, and sees something he shouldn’t have. Before long, Harry finds himself the target of savage spiders and monkey creatures and other frightening monstrosities that shouldn’t exist.
The attacks soon lead him to meet up with Havelock Graves of the Interstitial Crime Department, an agency that polices the multiverse. After being recruited into the ICD, Harry learns all about the network of interdimensional gates and their access to an infinite number of worlds in which there’s always someone, somewhere, sometime trying to break the rules of universe-hopping. Unfortunately for Harry though, Graves is determined to get back on top after his team is disgraced—and isn’t above using our protagonist as bait to draw out a Cthulhu cult that has dastardly plans to destroy the multiverse by awakening the Great Old One.
The first time I read Paul Crilley was a few years ago when I picked up his novels in the Tweed and Nightingale Adventures series, though at the time I hadn’t known he predominantly wrote Middle Grade and Young Adult titles. I was excited when I learned that he was branching into adult speculative fiction with the recent Poison City, and now Department Zero. As expected this one was a blast, combining a mix of action, adventure, and just plain weirdness. It’s also extremely fast-paced, the pages flying by as we’re shunted from one oddball situation to the next. In many ways, the plot reminded me of some crazy video game, which isn’t too surprising considering Crilley’s biography includes writing credits on five computer games (one of them being Star Wars: The Old Republic, a favorite of mine). Keep in mind too that Department Zero is a multiverse story where literally anything can happen, and indeed the author also makes the most out of this by unleashing his imagination, allowing this parade of horrors and wonders to move at full speed.
That said, at times this hectic approach feels overwhelming. The plot will continue charging on ahead even when you wish it would take a breather for a couple pages, regroup and recuperate and maybe spend a few moments getting to know our characters better. Many of them have zany personalities but then they end up being largely forgettable, and Harry himself feels roughly sketched and underdeveloped for a protagonist. He has a failed marriage, a dead-end job, a young daughter that he wishes he can spend more time with, as well as a bucketful of regrets—but I couldn’t connect emotionally to any of his problems. A part of me thinks this might have something to do with the writing style. First-person present tense can feel a bit awkward even at the best of times, and I don’t know if it was the best narrative choice for this story. There’s also the tone of the humor, which sometimes feels over-the-top and a bit forced, though at the same time Crilley also serves up some epic snark, leading to memorable dialogue and hilarious one-liners.
At the end of the day, Department Zero is a light and entertaining novel guaranteed to shake you out of your typical urban fantasy routine. While it might not be that deep, and the humor and pacing might take some getting used to, the story’s quirky premise is perhaps the foremost reason I would recommend it. Readers who enjoy a mix of genres and concepts will especially get a kick out of this snappy, imaginative adventure. If you happen to like your UF on the eccentric side, then this book will be like treating yourself to the most amazing all-you-can-eat buffet....more
I pondered for a couple days how to rate The Liberation. I definitely liked it more than the previous book, but probably not as much as the first one so in the end I decided to split the difference. In any event, there’s no denying this was a fantastic conclusion to a brilliantly crafted trilogy. Bravo, Ian Tregillis, bravo!
Set in the early 1900s, The Alchemy Wars is an alternate historical steampunk series featuring France and Netherlands at war. That the outcome of the conflict will be decided by the might of the Dutch’s powerful clockwork automaton army was already a foregone conclusion—though no one on either side had expected the twist of events that would ultimately lead to the fate of both nations hanging in the balance. For you see, those so-called mechanical “Clakkers”—who were supposed to be mindless and utterly loyal and obedient to their human masters, according to their creators—actually turned out to be not so mindless after all.
For centuries, these free-thinking sentient machines have been held under the powerful control of series of magical geasa, forced to serve as slaves. When the spell that has shackled them is suddenly broken, the result is a swift and chaotic rebellion. The Liberation is its final act, exploring the actions of an oppressed group which has finally experienced its first taste of freedom. While their bodies might be made of metal and glass, the Clakkers have minds that function like our own and a culture that includes language and religion. For all intents and purposes, they are human. And just like humans, their response to their newfound independence is varied and unpredictable, as this novel shows.
Every sci-fi fan knows that robot uprising stories are nothing new. But to me, the genius behind The Alchemy Wars is in the way Ian Tregillis has adapted the theme, framing it within a uniquely different narrative and setting. Here, there are no clear lines drawn between the A.I. and humans. The robots are us. They have the same potential for compassion and evil. They are as just likely to be our allies as our enemies. The human characters themselves are morally grey as well, in that I can’t say conclusively whether anyone in this series is depicted as a true hero or villain. Incidentally, that’s the nature of many of Tregillis’ stories.
Over the course of this trilogy the books have switched their focus between different characters, but in my review of The Rising I wrote that I was starting to look at The Alchemy Wars as being Jax’s series, and The Liberation has not really changed that opinion. Jax, a mechanical servitor who was one of the first to be freed from his geasa, has now rechristened himself Daniel after the events of the previous book. Each installment has seen a major turning point for his character, his role having evolved from wanted fugitive to reluctant messiah, and you will see his moment of truth in this final novel.
Another important figure is Berenice, the disgraced former spymaster for the French. Despite all the tragedies that have befallen her, she has not backed down, fighting her way back to the Americas where Marseilles-in-the-West houses the exiled royal court of France. While her goals align with the Clakkers’ fight for freedom, if the last two books have taught me anything, it is that Berenice is an ambitious woman who values her own agenda above all others—though to be fair, her character has also come a long way since The Mechanical. Her flaws notwithstanding, Berenice remains one of my favorite characters, and I have to wonder if that is because she reminds me so much of Chrisjen Avasarala from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse. Both women are strong-willed, foul-mouthed, and major forces to be reckoned with.
Missing from action though, is Hugo Longchamp. It was a little disappointing, since he was one of the standouts from The Rising. Still, I understood the reason for his diminished role and the need to bring in other perspectives in order to paint the full picture for this epic conclusion. Indeed, this book introduces an unexpected though no less fascinating new point-of-view, that of Anastasia Bell, a high-ranking member of the Clockmakers Guild of Amsterdam. For the first time we are getting an up-close-and-personal look at what is happening behind the scenes with the Dutch, and boy it is not pretty. When the story opens, Anastasia has just finished recovering from her grievous injuries sustained from the last book, only to be hit full-on with the Clakker rebellion.
The Liberation is about free will, and the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. It is about how a person (or machine) wields that power, whether you choose vengeance and violence or decide to walk the path of peace. It is about recognizing the humanity in others, and the consequences of ignorance and hubris. It’s a satisfying, stunning end to one of the most compelling and cleverly written stories I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for a series that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking, I highly recommend The Alchemy Wars....more
A crew of a compromised ship wake up to confusion and murder, with no memory of what came before. It’s not exactly a new premise, which is why when I first picked up Six Wakes, I thought I knew what I was in for—a mindless space adventure-thriller, with a bit of mystery thrown in perhaps. Turns out, I was wrong. Oh sure, the book had a little bit of this and a little dash of that, but it was also more than the sci-fi popcorn fare I had expected. Far, far, far from it, in fact.
The story begins on the Dormire, a generation starship carrying a cargo hold full of sleeping humans to the unspoiled paradise planet of Artemis. On the four-hundred-year journey it would take to travel to their destination, their lives would be safeguarded by IAN, the onboard AI. Six clones also make up the ship’s crew, all of them reformed criminals who are hoping to scrub their pasts clean and start their lives anew on Artimis: Katrina, the captain; Wolfgang, her second-in-command; Maria, the junior maintenance officer; Hiro, the programmer; Joanna, the medical officer; and Paul, the ship engineer. The opening scene is one of blood and terror when the six of them suddenly find themselves waking up in their cloning vats, with their minds downloaded into their new bodies—something that only happens if a clone’s previous incarnation has died.
Indeed, when they have recovered enough to find their bearings, they discover their old bodies floating around the ship in zero-G, all showing signs of violence. IAN has been knocked offline, explaining the lack of artificial gravity as well as the fact their ship is now off-course. To make matters worse, the cloning bay has been sabotaged so that the clones’ most up-to-date mindmaps cannot be accessed, and the food printer has also been reprogrammed to churn out poison. Since all the passengers in the hold are still in stasis, the implications clear: one of the six crew members had killed the others including themselves. And because their latest memories were retrieved from back-ups made decades ago from around the time they left earth, no one can remember what happened right before their deaths, so the killer can be any of them.
The more I think about it, the more I begin to think there are actually two sides to this novel. First, we have the obvious mystery aspect, which combines the suspense of a sci-fi thriller with the elements from a classic whodunit. Throw in the madness-inducing claustrophobia of knowing you are trapped on a spaceship with a group of criminals, any of whom are capable of murder—one of them has already killed you once, in fact—and the stage is set for a gripping psychological drama. To keep things interesting, the narrative also shifts between our six main characters, exploring not only who they are but also who they were in their past clone lives. Impressively, the tensions of the central mystery plot were kept up despite these frequent interludes and flashbacks.
Which brings me to second aspect of the story. While the publisher’s description might have sold us the idea that Six Wakes is nothing more than a murder mystery in space, the true nature of it is much more complicated and layered than that. Lafferty imagines a future in which humans can choose to clone themselves and transfer their mindmaps from iteration to iteration, effectively achieving a sort of immortality. Not surprisingly, this process is regulated heavily by a body of laws and a number of attached codicils to ensure that it is not abused. In exploring the characters’ pasts, the author not only addresses the ethics surrounding the cloning controversy, she also raises astute questions about our humanity by looking at the political and social ramifications on an individual as well as a societal level.
Personally, I love sci-fi stories like these, the ones that engage both the heart and the mind. I initially picked up Six Wakes expecting a straightforward mystery—some light entertainment, maybe a few twists and turns—but the book ended up being all that and more. Beneath the surface of its central premise, you’ll find a thought-provoking narrative that’s cleverly presented and well-crafted. Ultimately, Mur Lafferty has written novel that is more than it seems, engaging readers with a cast of unforgettable characters and a richly imagined plot. Six Wakes was a fun and rewarding experience all around and I cannot wait to read more by the author....more
It’s Seven Samurai set to a backdrop of a rollicking space opera in D. Nolan Clark’s (pseudonym of horror writer David Wellington) Forsaken Skies, the first book of The Silence series. This is the kind of science fiction story I love listening to in audio, so I was grateful to be offered the audiobook version to review.
From the depths of space comes a new enemy, and their first victim is a remote planet called Niraya, home to colony of peaceful farmers and religious exiles. In a desperate gambit, Elder McRae and Aspirant Roan stowaway on a freighter bound for the Hexus space hub in the hopes of finding help. When the two women arrive though, it’s to apathy and apologetic shrugs. Worse, they are even swindled by an unscrupulous officer named Lieutenant Maggs, who would have gotten away with his scam too had it not for the intervention of two good Samaritans, legendary pilot Aleister Lanoe and orbital traffic controller Tannis Valk.
Lanoe had happened to be on the Hexus after pursuing a suspected murderer to the space hub. The fugitive, a young man named Thom, had indeed killed his own father, but purportedly in self-defense. Feeling for the kid, Lanoe decides to take him under his wing. No one had any clue though, that the boy’s actions would precipitate a chain of events culminating into an adventure of such epic proportions, because struck by Elder McRae and Roan’s plight, Lanoe also decides to come to the aid of the Nirayans. He immediately recruits the help of a couple more buddies from back in the war, including his old flame Bettina Zhang as well as a Marine named Ehta. With Maggs, Valk, and Thom also on board, their group makes for a pretty ragtag crew, but with years of battle experience and piloting skills between them, Niraya may yet have a chance against their cold, ruthless foes.
For the first book of a new series, Forsaken Skies sure knows how to kick things off with style. It is an action-filled space adventure, and yet the story is notable for its extremely detailed look at its group of characters. This is one of the main reasons why the book runs so long. While the author presents a scenario where a helpless planet is under an imminent threat, he also wants the readers to really get to know his heroes, so the story takes its time shining a light on each of our key players.
For character-oriented readers who are looking for more than just a wham-bam adventure, this may be the best thing about this book. Hands down, my favorite part was the intro, watching the tangled lives of all the characters gradually converge. The introduction to each person may seem rather slapdash at first—everyone was so different, and events felt randomly thrown out and disjointed—but rest assured, everything will ultimately come together like pieces of a puzzle. Once the connections started to form, and the relationships began to make sense, I was hooked.
If you want things to move quickly though, then this might not be a book for you. While it has its fair share of space battles and disaster sequences, this isn’t exactly a story where heart-thumping action sequences will come flying at you around every corner either. Instead, much of it is given to developing the characters and their relationships, examining their backstories and how their pasts have shaped who they are now. Like I said, this is very much a novel that focuses on characters. It likes to slow down every now and then to build on them, and I won’t lie, as much as I love character development, there were times I just wanted things to move along. I concede, maybe this book could have been edited down a little. It made me glad I was reviewing the audio edition though, since any parts that dragged were probably offset by the fact I was listening and not reading the physical print.
And speaking of the audio format, the narration for the audiobook of Forsaken Skies is excellent. For a book with this many characters, my main concern for the audio was whether or not I could distinguish who was speaking, but narrator Jack Hawkins laid my worries to rest almost immediately with his deft handling of dialogue. He had a distinct voice for everyone—Lanoe had a certain accent, for example, and Maggs had a cocky inflection that was perfect for his character—and there was never any confusion who was talking, even in scenes where multiple people were gathered and having a conversation. Hawkins may have been another new-to-me narrator, but going forward, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for his future performances.
Final verdict? When I first saw the runtime of Forsaken Skies, it did strike me as a bit long compared to similar offerings in the same genre. I later came to realize it was because so much of the book was about giving a thoroughly detailed picture of all the characters—and there are quite a few of them. This does draw things out and slows down the pace, robbing the situation of its urgency somewhat, but if you like space operas that are more than just plain action though, featuring characters you get to know and care about, this might be worth a read. The audiobook and Jack Hawkin’s talented narration also adds an extra layer of humanity to the characters, so if you are considering the audio edition, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it....more
What a fun little time travel book! As someone who frequently goes trawling through Audible’s site looking for sci-fi and fantasy releases, I often see the audiobooks in this series pop up in my recommendations and I’ve always been curious about them. Now the first book is finally being released in the US in print (seven volumes are already available in the UK, where the series has become quite a sensation) and when the publisher Night Shade Books offered me a review copy, I absolutely couldn’t resist.
Just One Damned Thing After Another is a novel that wastes no time getting to the good stuff. The story stars our plucky narrator Madeleine “Max” Maxwell, a historian who gets recruited by a group of time travelers working undercover behind the façade of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. After the most hilariously bizarre interview process, Max join up with them and the adventures—and the disasters—immediately begin. There’s a rigorous training program required for all newbies where they learn all the dos and don’ts of time travel, and they also have to pass a series of tests, including a physical component because you never know what can happen during a trip back in time. After a while, it’s clear that Murphy’s Law generally applies to all missions at St. Mary’s.
The plot is very entertaining and filled with boisterous, comedic hijinks (and perfect if you like British humor). I for one love the fact that the historians prefer to call it “investigating major historical events in contemporary time” instead of using the term “time travel” because the latter is just “so sci-fi”. Due to the methods used to prepare new recruits, the beginning of the book also has a distinct “training school” vibe, though I have to say this is one of only a handful of stories I’ve encountered where a section like this feels just as good as or even better than the actual time traveling. When it comes to the evaluations at St. Mary’s, cheating is not only excused but sometimes even encouraged, a system that favors the historians who can “think outside the box”, allowing genuinely interesting characters like Max to shine.
Like many time travel books though, this one had its ups and downs. My main criticism is that, for a novel featuring time traveling academics who label themselves historians (and who also work at an institute for historical research), there was in fact disappointingly little history involved. I don’t consider myself to be a huge history buff or anything, but for me one of the biggest perks of reading time travel stories is being able to absorb interesting historical details and facts behind past events, people, and places. I thought this would be a book like that, but it turned out not to be the case. While the publisher blurb says “From eleventh-century London to World War I, from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria”, the truth is, the most exciting time period Max gets to visit will probably appeal more to dinosaur enthusiasts or paleontologists rather than history fans.
Still, if character-driven stories are your cup of tea, then you’ll find plenty to like. Max is hilarious, and I love her spirited and crafty nature. Working with a bunch of time traveling historians is pretty much as fun and crazy as you’d expect, and even the missions that end in complete disasters seem to have a humorous side. There’s also a strong romantic component, and I loved the irresistible attraction that sizzled between Max and Chief Farrell.
That said, not everything is light and fluffy either; every now and then a grim pall will settle over some of the plot’s events. There’s violence, there’s death, and there’s lots and lots of dismemberment. It can be jarring sometimes, especially when there’s a tendency for all this gruesomeness to come on suddenly. Same goes for the sex, and the random emotional displays that seem to drop in and explode out of nowhere. I certainly don’t mind the darkness and brutal themes, but as with all good things, timing is everything. Maybe this book just needed some extra editing, or maybe it was just a consequence of the author’s personal unique style. Whatever it was, I found it somewhat distracting.
So, here’s the deal. If you’re into history, and was hoping to get lots of it out of this book, then be prepare to dial back on your expectations. This book is also not heavy on the “science fiction” side of time travel. Doing it is as simple and straightforward as getting into a pod, setting the dial, and hitting the jump button. To be fair, the science and tech of it is not the point of this series, so Taylor probably did the right thing in glossing over the process. There are some general attempts to explain how the timeline is preserved and why the historians can’t mess with certain things, but my point is, if you want detailed explanations, quantum theory and the whole nine yards in your time travel fiction, then this book isn’t going to be for you.
This book IS for you though, if you enjoy 1) fun, adventurous stories about time travel, 2) books that make you laugh, especially when there’s just a touch of darkness in its sense of humor, 3) strong, memorable characters with quirky personalities, and 4) simply relaxing and having a good time with a light, entertaining book. I can see now why this series is such a hit, and knowing more about what to expect in future books, I’m definitely interested in continuing with Max’s fantastic exploits through time!...more
Quantum Break: Zero State is the tie-in novel to the action video game developed by Remedy Entertainment, the same folks who also brought us cinematic masterpieces such as Max Payne and Alan Wake. While it’s clearly marketed to fans of the game—and yes, I too did my stint in Quantum Break and consider myself one—I urge you not to write off this book just because you haven’t played it, or because you don’t think a “video game book” would be for you. Often these kinds of books get a bad rap (and goodness knows they deserve it sometimes) but I promise you this one is different.
From the very first page, I was floored by the stellar quality of this novel. I don’t want to sound like a book snob, especially since I consider myself a diehard tie-in junkie, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact this is a book based on a video game. I mean, it’s almost too good to be one? Needless to say, Quantum Break: Zero State surprised the hell out of me. Tie-in novel or not, it can easily stand on its own against any of the more mainstream or popular sci-fi thrillers out there.
The story stars Jack Joyce, a maverick who follows where his feet take him—as long as it’s away from his hometown of Riverport, Massachusetts where six years ago he cut ties with his older brother, the brilliant scientist William Joyce. Will is a genius, but his mind is also very disturbed. Growing up with him as a legal guardian was difficult, after their parents died in an accident when Jack was just a child. Will was withdrawn and consumed by his research, so his younger brother actually ended up being the one to support them both. It got even worse once Jack discovered that Will had secretly taken all the money their parents left them to use on his work after his own funding and research grants ran out, not to mention the massive debts with the local gangs and loan sharks. After years of cleaning up his brother’s messes, Jack finally said enough is enough. He packed up and left Riverport, washing his hands clean of Will and his crazy theories and problems.
But now, an email from Jack’s childhood friend Paul Serene has brought him back. As it turns out, Will’s theories weren’t so crazy after all. As a pioneer and top scientist in the field of chronon technology, Will has been consulting on a top secret project spearheaded by mega-corporation Monarch Solutions at Riverport University. Paul is one of the research leads on the project, and for some reason he wants Jack to come meet him at the Physics building so he can show him something that will change the face of the planet. Curiosity piqued, Jack agrees to go see his friend and thoroughly gets his mind blown when he realizes what is in the lab where Paul brings him. It appears that with Will’s help, Monarch had created a time machine…
You can definitely read this without knowing a single thing about the game, but some background information will probably give more context. In Quantum Break you play Jack, who gains time manipulation powers and uses them to fight the diabolical authorities behind Monarch. The flow of time breaks down and all hell breaks loose, creating all kinds of insane effects with the environment, including time stutters, time stops, time slowing down or speeding up, etc. As well, one of the game’s “hooks” include a live-action component. After each act in the game, an episode of a TV show will play out onscreen letting you see how your gameplay decisions have affected events and other characters in the story. As noted in the book’s foreword, there really is no “canon” version of Quantum Break, since you are going to be making a lot of in-game choices and in doing so create your own version of events. The game is about time travel and branching timelines, so your own playthrough will likely be completely different from another player’s.
This is why the idea behind this book is so brilliant. When I first read its description, I was initially worried that it would be a straight-up novelization—and who would want that, when you have the choice to actually immerse yourself in the cinematic experience that is the game itself? But here’s the cool part: Quantum Break: Zero State isn’t a true novelization because it is actually a combination of what’s in the game along with a lot more stuff that never made it in—think early story concepts, discarded ideas, or other elements that either weren’t used or abandoned because the developers couldn’t make them work for what they had in mind for the final product. It’s like an alternate timeline novel. As a result, you can read this book on its own without having even heard of Quantum Break! And if you have played it, you can also read this without feeling like it’s just a rehash of everything you did in game.
Like I said, the writing is superb and Cam Rogers’ prose is smart, punchy, and electrifying. As Remedy’s game writer and narrative designer, Rogers knows exactly how to capture the suspenseful atmosphere of Quantum Break, following through on the promise of action and thrilling fight scenes. The big theme here is also the time traveling aspect of course, and it is extremely cool, as are the powers that Jack possesses in game which are outstandingly described and utilized here in text. The story was indeed very different from my gameplay experience, but I found the version in this novel to be no less intense and exciting. I even liked that it gave me the chance to know some of the other characters better, most notably Beth Wilder.
Just for a second, forget that this book is based on a game, even if you are a fan of Quantum Break. If you enjoy sci-fi thrillers in general, and the idea of time traveling and superpowers sounds like a good time to you, then you must pick up this book. And if you happened to enjoy the video game too, then that goes double. This was all kinds of awesome, easily one of the best game tie-ins I’ve ever read, and heck, just a great time travel thriller all-around....more
I’ll admit, as cool as its cover looked, Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan did not initially grab my interest. Mind you, it’s not that I’m averse to the prospect of a 150-foot-tall Mecha wreaking havoc in my science fiction, but at the time I just wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for that sort of bombast and action. Thing is though, it turned out I was completely wrong, both on the nature of this book and on my early skepticism that the story might not be for me – because, as you’ll see, it absolutely was. There’s a depth to USJ that I did not expect, and it was this mix of profundity and thrilling suspense that made the book such a great read and audio listen.
Described as a spiritual successor to The Man in the High Castle, even if you have not read the Philip K. Dick classic, one can immediately surmise a certain set of expectations from United States of Japan. Yes, it is an alternate history novel, and it takes place approximately four decades after World War II in a world where Japan won the conflict and conquered America. History has been rewritten to praise Japan’s exemplary conduct in the war and most Americans now also worship the Emperor as a god. Anyone who disagrees or does otherwise is looked upon with suspicion, or disappeared altogether. Resistance has been reduced to a small group of rebels called the “George Washingtons”, freedom fighters who are continuing to find new ways to subvert the Japanese rule. Their latest tactic is a video game called “USA” that depicts what the world might be like if the Allied forces had won the war instead.
Eventually, the illegal game reaches to the attention of Captain Beniko Ishimura, the son of two refugees who were freed from the Japanese American internment camps at the end of the war. Ben’s role to censor video games ultimately leads him on a journey to investigate USA’s origins, putting him on a path of secrets, dangers and lies. Together with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police, Ben goes looking for the rebels and discovers a whole lot more than he bargained for.
What I found most interesting about this book is its protagonist, a 39-year-old underachiever who has hit a dead end in his military career. He’s also indolent, cowardly, the worst kind of womanizer, and not even those closest to him will trust Ben as far as they can throw him. After all, this is a man who turned in his own parents for being traitors to the Japanese Empire. What kind of heartless monster does that?
But of course, there’s always more to the story. As events unfold, and we get to know Ben better, it becomes clear he is not the cold-blooded and deceitful snake his actions paint him out to be. In fact, he feels downright human, living an unambitious life and preferring to stay under the radar. In this world where the secret police can come knocking at your door anytime, when even the slightest or non-existent hint of dissension is suspected, Ben’s approach might in truth be the safest, smartest way to live. And after a while, our protagonist doesn’t actually seem like such a bad guy. Sure, Ben might be apathetic and faint-hearted, but he doesn’t seem capable of directly harming anyone. In time though, his character will develop further and make great strides, especially after he starts teaming up with Akiko. I was impressed at how both of them felt genuinely fleshed-out with complex, believable personalities. What’s on the surface is not always indicative of what’s on the inside.
At its heart, United States of Japan is also a political mystery-thriller. I enjoyed how the world was gradually revealed to us in all its horror and unpleasantness. It’s a dark tale, but fast-paced because of the perfect balance of action and suspense. The story holds an incredibly ambitious blend of concepts and themes, but never once did I feel that it was too much, or that any one element overshadowed another. I liked how the towering robots came into play and how video games had a significant role. Simply put, the plot came together like a well-oiled machine. Once you’re drawn into the intrigue, it’s hard to pull yourself out again.
My experience with the audiobook was interesting as well. This is the first time I’ve listened to a book read by Adam Sims, and I admit my first impression was not very favorable. However, either I got used to the narration or the performance eventually improved, because by the end, Sims’ reading didn’t feel as flat and there were more variations in the rhythm and inflection of his voices. It’s not the best performance I’ve ever heard in an audiobook, but it was more than satisfactory and I also thought Sims also did a good job with his accents and acting.
All told, United States of Japan is a fascinating venture into alternate history, and it is not to be underestimated. Highly recommended....more
This was a tough one to rate. I devoured this one, so you know I really enjoyed it and I want to make that clear. It was quite different from what I expected though, perhaps more political in nature than action and adventure-oriented, and calling it “Star Wars-style science fiction” might be a bit of a stretch. Still, Behind the Throne is a special kind of gem, and would appeal to readers who appreciate story structure, unique cultures, royal court intrigue, and subverting tropes. It’s also a fast and fun book, gradually building and hooking you in by degrees until it’s impossible to tear yourself away.
First things first: score one to this book for starring a gun-running smuggler princess. Twenty years ago, Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol ran away from home and took to open space, sloughing her royal identity for a new one in order to hunt her father’s killer. Even though her mission ultimately failed, she’s never looked back, opting instead to travel the galaxy for reasons only known to herself, becoming one of the empire’s most notorious gun smugglers in the process.
However, that life suddenly comes crashing to an end when Hail is intercepted by elite Trackers and forced to return home to her family. Or what’s left of it. It turns out, her sisters and niece are dead, likely victims in an assassination plot, leaving Hail her mother’s sole remaining heir to the Indranan throne. With no other choice, Hail reluctantly takes on her new responsibilities, if nothing else because she is determined to hunt down those responsible for her sisters’ deaths. Later though, she finds that being Heir Apparent is even more dangerous than gun-running. Secrets and shadowy plots and lurk everywhere beneath the surface, and to make things worse, Hail discovers that her mother the Empress has been afflicted by an incurable illness that will soon force her to give up her rule. As Hail struggles to insert herself back into court life, she finds she has become a target of assassination herself, making her quest to uncover this conspiracy all the more urgent.
Despite the publisher blurb describing this as an action-packed space opera, I would caution against going into this expecting lots of space battles, raucous adventures and daring exploits. There is some of that, but it comes mostly at the end. I would say the second part of that blurb promising “courtly conspiracy” is probably more accurate. That’s not to say that the action and all-out galactic war won’t come in the next book, because I honestly feel the story is building towards that direction, but this first installment is primarily focused on politics of the royal family.
Some might hear this and feel reluctant to give this book a try because they think politics are dull. While I concede that some political science fiction can be very dry, I can assure you this is not the case with Behind the Throne. To the novel’s credit, the story is very engaging, featuring the juiciest kind of court intrigue as you can imagine—betrayals, assassinations, secrets, scandals and the like. The world-building is also handled deftly by Wagers, who infuses her universe with enough culture and history to give the conflicts within these pages significant context. Everything feels rich and connected, making me feel that these characters really matter, or that what happens in the story can indeed have a great impact on the rest of the galaxy.
This is also a very character-oriented story, written in the first person perspective so we’re given a front row seat to all that is going on. I confess I did not warm to Hail right away, in part due to her tendency to get overwrought or melodramatic when she reacts to any kind of news. Wager’s exaggerated writing style may have something to do with this, as there were quite a few hammy descriptions in the intro lone where the world always seemed to be crashing down around our heroine, or the air was constantly being sucked out of her lungs. However, I gradually came to look past this as the plot progressed, following Hail back to her home planet with her Tracer escorts Emmory Tresk and Starzin Hafin. I liked how her relationship with the two of them slowly evolved from open hostility to mutual trust, as Hail quickly comes to realize who her true friends are in a court full of hidden traitors and groveling two-faced sycophants. Standing in defiance to all those who doubt her, or think less of her because of her criminal past, Hail proves to everyone that she can be a strong and effective ruler who cares for her people.
Audiobook Comments: I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to review the audio edition of Behind the Throne. As audiophiles well know, one of the biggest downsides to listening to speculative fiction books in this format is the inability to know how to spell any of those crazy fantasy and science fiction names! In addition to the world and characters of the Indranan War series being heavily inspired by Indian culture and mythology, there are also other names of people, places, technology, ideas, and other space-faring societies described in this book that I had to look up in a print version to know how to write them correctly. It’s not really a huge problem for me, but if you know that this is something that frustrates you, it might be worth picking up the hardcopy.
As for the narration, I thought the reader Angèle Masters delivered an impressive performance, especially as she had to maintain an accent through the entire book. That said, it was not always consistent, and there were inconvenient moments where this was distracting. These are definitely things to consider if you have the choice between print and audio, and depending on your preferences, your mileage will vary. As for myself, I found it enjoyable enough, and probably won’t rule out the possibility of tackling the next book in this format as well.
Bottom line, I had a great time with this novel, despite going in with very different expectations. I think the next book will be more in line with what the book description advertises, with more action and adventure featuring our protagonist relying more on her experiences from her old gun running days to save the empire. I look forward to the sequel After the Crown to see what new tale K.B. Wagers has in store for us....more
The first thing you should know about The Rift Uprising is that while it may be published under adult sci-fi and fantasy imprint Harper Voyager, it is patently, most assuredly, a Young Adult novel. Thinking there would be at least some crossover appeal, I did have to go through a brief adjustment period to alter my expectations, because I believe target audience matters. Indeed, once I donned my “YA reader” hat, I found this one easier to enjoy, and I think it has quite a lot of potential for fans of YA.
The story takes place in 2020, following the life of a seventeen-year-old girl named Ryn Whittaker, who is a Citadel—an elite super-soldier created by a secret military program in response to more than a dozen mysterious rifts opening around the world back in the mid-2000s. These rifts turned out to be portals to alternate Earths, and when it became clear that scientists were unable to close or control what came out of them, governments around the world decided to cover the whole thing up in a massive, coordinated global conspiracy.
An important development that came out of this though, was the arrival of a more advanced humanoid race from a parallel world who gave humanity the technology to protect themselves and guard the rifts. This technology involved implanting individuals with a cybernetic chip that would enhance their physical and mental abilities, turning them into powerful fighting machines. Problem was, adults didn’t do well on the implants; every single one who was a part of the initial experiment died. So instead, the government decided to put this technology in seven-year-olds (because somehow, the scientists were able to determine that young, still-developing brains were more resistant to the chip’s fatal effects) without the children’s OR their parents’ knowledge and consent. These kids would eventually become the Citadels, once their implants get activated when they turn fourteen.
This is what happened to Ryn, who has been living a double life for the last three years, ever since she found out what was done to her. At home she has to pretend to be a normal teenager in front of her family, who are blissfully unaware of the truth behind rifts and Citadels, and think that their daughter is part of a gifted government school program. In reality, Ryn patrols a nearby rift, either putting down enemies that come through or helping relocate non-hostile otherworld entities called “Immigrants” to one of the many sprawling internment camps around the world (which are also covered up by their respective governments, of course).
I’ve gone into the specifics of the premise because I feel so much of the Rift conspiracy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A large, widespread plot involving thousands upon thousands of people in more than a dozen countries, hiding the fact that they’ve been experimenting on hundreds of children (and praying that their parents are all idiots and won’t notice) while stashing countless hordes of interdimensional aliens in gigantic compounds located in thickly settled areas around the globe? I find it a little too farfetched and hard to believe that the world has been kept in the dark for so long, especially in this age of satellites and air travel, hungry media outlets and wary whistleblowers, class-action lawsuits and social media. In some ways, reading this book reminded me of how I felt while reading Divergent—that is, the setup is really cool, but a lot of the explanations are either iffy or require lots of logical leaps. If you don’t mind rolling with the punches though, or if you are reading this for the story and not the world-building, then this won’t be an issue.
Also to keep in mind is the fact that, as with most YA novels, there are certain tropes to watch for. There’s a romance, which I’m tempted to label instalove, because from the moment a boy named Ezra walks through the rift into Ryn’s world, she becomes utterly smitten with him. However, because all Citadels are conditioned to fly into a berserker rage the moment they make skin-on-skin contact with the object of their affection or anyone they feel even remotely attracted to (which is weird, because if you could condition any kind response into the Citadels, wouldn’t it make more sense to make them, say, violently ill at the thought of sex, instead of just plain violent? Less chance of putting your own soldiers or any number of innocent bystanders in the hospital and creating a media incident, if you’re inclined to keep the lid on a massive conspiracy, right?) Ryn and Ezra find themselves in the unenviable position of not being able to physically express their love for each other.
I wish I could say that Ryn’s motivation to blow the conspiracy wide open was driven by more noble reasons, like a desire to free herself and her fellow Citadels from the government’s yoke, or to save the Immigrants by helping them return to their home worlds. But the truth is, Ryn was mostly thinking about sex when she started on her mission to find out the truth about her implant, and the reason why she kept on fighting was because she was desperate to get laid. It’s admittedly a selfish and somewhat flimsy rationale, and therein lies another big reason why I saw this book as more YA than adult—mainly because I think an adult audience might be less patient with Ryn, who for the bulk of the book was a walking ball of angsty hormones with only one thing on her mind.
What I really loved though, was the mystery behind the rifts. Whatever may drive them, Ryn and Ezra make a great team uncovering the truth together, with him using his brains and her using her muscle. I enjoyed the suspense as it was gradually revealed how the portals work, and why the government might be going to such lengths to hide them from the world. I also liked the idea that anything at all can come out of the rifts, and I got the feeling the author had a bit of fun with that. Descriptions of the Village, where Immigrants from alternate worlds are relocated, were also amazing to behold. Imagine a neighborhood made up of a hodgepodge of different habitats and buildings to accommodate all manner of interdimensional beings. There’s even a menagerie to house all the otherworldly animals and creatures that come through.
All told, if you’re looking for a fun and entertaining sci-fi YA novel to spend a rainy afternoon with, The Rift Uprising might be exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you have a fondness for romance-driven stories. The world-building isn’t too deep and the adolescent characters might be motivated by their very adolescent yearnings, but nevertheless this book is a superfast read and its quick pacing also means never a dull moment....more
A couple years ago I picked up NOS4R2. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by Joe Hill, and I enjoyed it so much afterwards that I told myself it ceA couple years ago I picked up NOS4R2. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by Joe Hill, and I enjoyed it so much afterwards that I told myself it certainly wasn’t going to be the last. And see, I’m one to hold to promises. When I found out about The Fireman, it went straight onto my reading list.
I’ll admit though, I didn’t know what to expect at first. I went into the book completely blind on purpose, having read no reviews and not even the full description. I wanted to be completely surprised, the way I was with NOS4R2, which ended up being a supernatural horror that cleverly blurred the lines between our world of reality and imagination. I think part of me believed The Fireman would be similar, but in fact, the book turned out to be less of a horror novel and more like a science fiction dystopian suspense-thriller, the kind that usually goes hand-in-hand with an impending apocalypse.
This time, it’s a pandemic caused by a deadly infection called Draco Incendia Trychophyton, though most folks know it by its more common name, Dragonscale—so called because of the swirls of black and gold that appear on the skin of its victims. But the most interesting thing about this plague is the way it behaves, first infecting its host with its spores, incubating in the body for some amount of time before causing them to burst into flames. What follows is spontaneous combustion by the millions, with cities rapidly being consumed by blazing infernos. There is no cure, and all measures to contain Dragonscale have failed. People are afraid, both the healthy and the sick. In a very short time, the world has become a ruin.
In the midst of all this is our protagonist Harper Grayson, a former school nurse who volunteers to help treat patients with Dragonscale after the hospitals become overcrowded and short-staffed. Despite adhering to the most stringent of anti-infection procedures however, Harper wakes up one day to the telltale black and gold streaks on her skin. And what’s even more troubling, this occurs just a few short weeks after she discovered she was pregnant. Believing himself to be infected as well, Harper’s husband Jakob snaps and blames her for everything, going as far as to attempt to kill her, thus forcing her to go on the run. Out in the world though, it is a dangerous place, with vigilantes gunning down those with Dragonscale in broad daylight with no fear of reprisal. Harper ends up being rescued by a mysterious stranger known as The Fireman, who brings her to a secret community of Dragonscale sufferers who appear to have learned how to keep their fiery deaths at bay. Harper finds safety with this group for a while, but of course the peace does not last.
While I don’t typically like making comparisons between books in my reviews, I feel like I have to make an exception here. And anyway, it’s not like doing so automatically means any negative connotations. In fact, for this particular case, I can’t think of a better way to pay this book a compliment. For you see, The Fireman totally reminded me of The Stand by Stephen King. You’ve got a pregnant young woman. A deaf character named Nick. A kindly old leader called Father Tom in the former, and a Mother Abigail in the latter. And oh yeah, mustn’t forget there’s also that whole end of the world thing, with the human race being ravaged by a killer plague. Later, I learned from a Wired article that these similarities and more were something Joe Hill realized himself, partway into writing his novel. Instead of running away from the parallels though, he decided to embrace them, writing what he calls his own fiery, gasoline-soaked version of his dad’s classic. When I read that, I actually thought it was kind of…well, sweet.
Granted, I’m sure there were other influences, as there are quite a few dystopian tropes on display here. A commune led by a tyrannical ideologue who just wants to see people yield and conform. Brainwashed followers to help them do it. Dissenters told to sit down and shut up, fall in line or else. The injustice of watching bad guys get the upper hand on good people. The mass hysteria and violence that occurs when you dehumanization what you fear. The ultimate quest by the characters for their promised land, a safe haven. All these themes are here, and so are the emotions they instill. Ergo I can’t help but think The Fireman feels like a story I’ve seen before, or that these characters (or their archetypes) are those I’ve met before in the past.
But you know what? That’s okay. There are plenty of dystopians out there, tales that serve to rip away civilization’s thin veneer, but this is Joe Hill and he does it better than most. I really liked the idea of Dragonscale, a very unique and very frightening plague in how it spreads, infects, and kills. We’d all like to think we would do the right thing in the face of such horror, but the author mercilessly bares the truth on such naivete. Would you help a stranger in need, if it meant risking the life of your own child? Could you live with yourself for turning away someone sick and dying, even if you knew that single act of kindness towards one individual might mean the death of thousands down the road? The Fireman makes you confront these tough questions, and yes, they should make you feel uncomfortable. I pray the world never finds itself in such dire straits, because I think Joe Hill has it right: things would get very ugly.
Honestly, my only real criticism is that I think this book could have benefited from some tighter writing, maybe shave a bunch of pages off of this hulking 700+ page monster. While it never bored me, there were still plenty of sections in the middle that consisted of nothing but talk, adding little to the story or to the characters. Any extra words would have been better served developing the main protagonist. Harper is a strong and kind-hearted person, but I also felt she had the least depth of the entire cast. All the major actions I can think of were undertaken by other characters, and her overall personality remained relatively static and bland, much of it summed up with Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, or Narnia allusions (which grated on my nerves after a while).
I also didn’t think there was anything too innovative or original about the plot, and the writing was so unsubtle I could spot all the big “twists” coming a mile away. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book though, because all in all it was great. However, if you’re no stranger to dystopian novels, it might just give you a sense of déjà vu. The story felt almost restrained, with none of the weird developments and mind-bending surprises I found in NOS4R2. Compared to that one, The Fireman was practically a calm, quiet stroll through the park.
When it comes to the two Joe Hill novels I’ve read so far though, each of them has its strengths in very different areas. While The Fireman is more grounded in well-established themes and ideas, I also enjoyed it for what it was, and I certainly appreciated it for its entertainment value. Not once did my enthusiasm flag even as we treaded familiar ground, thanks to the fascinating nature of the premise and the high levels of suspense kept the pages turning. I had a good time with this one, and would highly recommend....more
Calling all Starfleet personnel: if you’ve ever found yourself hankering for a homage or parody of your favorite sci-fi franchise, you might just want to take a closer look at this humorous space opera by Steven Erikson of Malazan fame. While it’s true I don’t usually go for “spoofy” books such as these, when it comes to my beloved Star Trek though, you can be sure all bets are off.
These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to blindly stumble upon strange new worlds, to be a huge pain in the ass to every new life and civilization it meets, to boldly go where no author has dared go before. Erikson has certainly pulled out all the stops for this one, and if you’ve read the first book, then you’ll already know that this series is very different from his fantasy. The style of humor is also bound to raise a few eyebrows, especially if you’re not prepared for it. Suffice to say, it can be a little (okay, maybe a lot) on the crass side. Well, you have been warned.
Still, considering the prime source of inspiration seems to come from Star Trek: The Original Series, it’s easy to see why there might be plenty of material for Erikson to play with. His Captain Hadrian A. Sawback is a lot like Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk with his bluster and libido dialed up to eleventy-billion (though apparently he also looks a lot like Chris Pine, enough to be his stand-in). Meanwhile, all the members of Sawback’s bumbling crew have characteristics that will no doubt remind readers of characters not just from the 60s shows, but from all the other series and movies as well.
While the title is an obvious nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the hirsute Captain Betty of the Klang fleet actually receives very little page-time in this rowdy romp through space and time, in spite of his vow to destroy his archnemesis Captain Hadrian Sawback. The story is once again told in a style that kind of emulates the “episodic” format of a TV series, with the outrageous events of the plot flowing from one hilarious calamity to the next. I didn’t think it would be possible, but this follow-up to Willful Child might be even wilder, zanier, and more unrestrained than the first book. The satirical tone is also more forceful and cutting in this one, almost like Erikson has realized just how far he could push the envelope when it comes to the genre, and he’s endeavored to outdo even himself for this second novel. This escalation can be seen as Hadrian and Co. are thrown in increasingly deeper waters and more absurd situations, including a howling good scene where they find themselves trapped at an early 21st Century Comicon. As you can imagine, Galaxy Quest-levels of hilarity ensue.
The characters are also given a lot more depth—to the extent that it is possible in a spoof such as this. We see the return of many members of the bridge crew as well as the introduction of several new ones, forming an eccentric collection of personalities that signal no end to the fun in sight. As well, those who enjoyed the character dynamics from the first book will probably be pleased to see more of the same in this follow-up, especially if you got a kick out of the vicious ripostes between Hadrian and Tammy the shipboard-artificial-intelligence-and-sometimes-chicken from the future.
From the second part of that last sentence alone, you can probably guess there will be no serious majestic sweeping space epic here. But if you are a fan of Family Guy or The Simpsons-type satire and humor, then the snappy and suggestive dialogue together with the fast-almost-frenetic pacing of Willful Child: Wrath of Betty will give you more than you bargained for. I’ll admit, if this had been a spoof on anything else other than Star Trek, I might not have been quite so taken with it, but in general I think this series has a lot to offer for fans of sci-fi humor. Erikson’s main inspiration aside, you’ll also find him mercilessly/lovingly riffing on other franchises like Star Wars as well as many of the genre’s most popular tropes. All this amounts to plenty of laughs and never a dull moment....more
3-3.5 of 5 stars. Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon is a tale about Bazine Netal, a character who made an appearance in a quick scene in Maz's Castle from3-3.5 of 5 stars. Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon is a tale about Bazine Netal, a character who made an appearance in a quick scene in Maz's Castle from The Force Awakens. She was the creepy black-lipsticked female informant who we first saw sharing a couch with that huge Dowutin alien. This short story provides a bit of background for her, with a focus around one of her past missions. On the whole a fun and fast read, but in the end, probably one that you can take or leave. It's not vital to the overall scheme of things in any way, and if you replace the names and places it could probably even work just fine as a non-Star Wars-y story. Unless you like to speculate...in which case you can have a bit of fun with the last few lines of the book. ...more
Here’s the deal: if you’re a fan of zombie stories or if a zombie origin tale that puts a fresh spin on the genre sounds like it might interest you, then you’re going to want to check out The Rains by Gregg Hurwitz. Double bonus for you too if you prefer books with a YA bent, as this is the author’s first book in a new series targeting teen readers.
However, if you happen to be a science/biology geek or a stickler for common sense and logic, then this book is going to make you cry.
The story begins with an introduction to the quiet and rural community of Creek’s Cause, where the peace is shattered one evening by a meteor strike. Not long afterwards, our fifteen-year-old protagonist Chance Rain and his older brother Patrick are awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion at their neighbors’ house, leading the two of them to sneak out and investigate. They arrive just in time to stop an attack on the kids by the stepmother, who appears to have been transformed into mindless raving husk by a mysterious and unknown parasite. After saving the children, Chance and Patrick find the father on top of a water tower where millions of alien spores look to have exploded from out of his bloated corpse.
Recalling what he’s learned about the Cordyceps fungus and “zombie ants”, Chance quickly deduces that these spores are what’s causing the infection, turning all of the adults—and only adults, it seems—into violent, savage hosts. But if this is indeed the way the parasite is spreading, then why aren’t those who are younger being infected?
Chance and Patrick find the answer to this once they arrive at the high school, where their science teacher Dr. Chatterjee has been sheltering the town’s children and teenagers. Chatterjee explains that the parasite appears to be affecting white matter, the paler tissue of the human brain mostly made up of nerve fibers and their myelin sheaths. And since the brains of children are not as developed as an adult's and do not have as much white matter, they are immune to the effects of the spore. This also explains why Dr. Chatterjee, who has multiple sclerosis—a demyelinating disease—is unaffected himself.
So far, this is going great. Things are getting pretty interesting. I’m liking the suspense, and the mystery behind the infectious agent is really driving things. But then, we get another bombshell. The group figures out that, at the exact moment a person turns 18, the brain will immediately become susceptible to the parasite. The exact moment. As in, right down to the minute of your birth. One second, you’re fine. But as soon as the clock ticks over, then happy birthday, you’re a zombie!
The bio nerd in me just wants to tear my hair out and scream, NOOOOOOO THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS!
I do love it when zombie books use science to explain things (the Cordyceps idea is becoming a lot more common, for example, and I still can’t get enough) but let’s please try to make it more convincing. I thought that tying the parasite’s processes to brain development was ambitious and intriguing, but unfortunately the human body does not work like a clock. One does not wake up in the morning of their eighteenth birthday to find their brain suddenly and miraculously bursting with myelin. If only growing up and becoming mature was so easy.
So yes, that bothered me a lot. It might even have biased me against the rest of the book. If such a glaring oversight made it through the first few drafts, I can only assume that the prevailing attitude was “This is YA, good science and reasoning won’t matter so much.” But it does. It should. With this in mind, I soon started seeing more plot holes, inaccuracies, and logical leaps.
If things like that don’t concern you so much, then you should be fine, though for me they ultimately prevented me from calling The Rains a great book. It’s a shame too, because the plot was entertaining and fun in a way that reminded me a lot of The Faculty movie, and the characters were good, strong, and charming in the salt-of-the-earth sense. Still, generally speaking I don’t feel comfortable enough about recommending this book to just anyone; perhaps if you are a diehard zombie fiction reader or YA horror fan, you might want to take a look. However, if you’re a pickier reader like me who also predominantly reads adult speculative fiction, you might end up finding the flaws too distracting. I give this one 3 stars, and just barely....more